In preparation for Thursday’s season-opener between Ole Miss and Boise State in Atlanta, Saturday Down South is taking a look at the key matchups that may decide the showdown between the Rebels and the Broncos.

Previous matchups:

Ole Miss front seven vs. Boise State tailback Jay Ajayi

The Boise State Broncos will put superstar tailback Jay Ajayi on display in Thursday’s showdown in Atlanta, and it will be up to the Rebels defense to contain him.

Ajayi rushed for 1,425 yards and 18 touchdowns as a sophomore last season and added 22 receptions for 222 yards and another touchdown as a pass-catcher. The versatile tailback has NFL talent and serves as the heartbeat of the Broncos’ offense.

Boise State also returns its starting quarterback in Grant Hedrick and top two receivers in Matt Miller and Shane Williams-Rhodes, making it imperative the Ole Miss defensive front contain Ajayi without requiring extra men in the box.

This should be extra challenging for a Rebels defense playing without Denzel Nkemdiche, who is suspended for Thursday night’s game. Ole Miss allowed opponents to rush for more than 150 yards per game in 2013 while allowing 27 rushing touchdowns over the 14-game season, but it also returns a majority of its starters in the front seven.

Defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche has had an entire offseason to acclimate himself with playing tackle rather than end, and he is poised to be a much more disruptive force up the middle against the run this season. Fellow defensive linemen Fadol Brown, C.J. Johnson, Marquis Haynes and Woodrow Hamilton, among others, will need to apply pressure up the field to keep Ajayi moving horizontally rather than vertically.

Without Denzel Nkemdiche, the Rebels will rely heavily on linebackers Deterrian Shackelford and Serderius Bryant to cover a lot of ground and limit Ajayi’s gains when he touches the ball. Shackelford is a sixth-year senior overflowing with experience and maturity, while Bryant was an All-SEC selection after last season and again this preseason.

If the Broncos get Ajayi rolling – controlling time of possession and the pace of the game in the process – it could throw a wrinkle in Ole Miss’ fast-paced offense on the other side of the field. However, if the Rebels can keep Ajayi in check and force Hedrick to move the offense with his arm, they could take control of the game early and roll to an easy victory in Atlanta.