Chad Kelly, Dalvin Cook highlight Ole Miss-Florida State matchup
While they will never be on the field together, Chad Kelly vs. Dalvin Cook is the matchup to watch.
Ole Miss takes on Florida State in Orlando tonight, wrapping up a memorable Week 1 of the college football season. Technically a neutral-site contest, expect plenty of garnet and gold in the crowd.
Considering how much trouble the SEC has had the past few days, a Rebels victory would help salvage a disappointing opening weekend. Aside from Alabama, which steamrolled USC in Arlington, the rest of the league looked wobbly at best. Upsetting the Seminoles — ranked No. 4 — will be no easy task.
FSU features a loaded roster, but Cook is a terrifying tailback and legit Heisman Trophy candidate.
Despite missing one game and all but a few snaps in another due to different nagging injuries, Cook ran for 1,691 yards and 19 touchdowns last year. He’s a unique combination of power and speed.
He highlights a ‘Noles offense that returns every single starter from 2015, including an offensive line led by Roderick Johnson at left tackle — he’s a contender for All-America. Coach Jimbo Fisher will be breaking in a new quarterback in Deondre Francois, but Cook is the team’s main attraction.
Mississippi isn’t as balanced on both sides of the ball, but Kelly makes sure the scales don’t tip.
The well-traveled Kelly, who started out at Clemson before a detour to East Mississippi Community College, took to coach Hugh Freeze’s pass-happy scheme like a fish to water after coming to Oxford.
He was one of only 12 QBs nationally to throw for more than 4,000 yards in 2015, and his completion percentage (65.1) was 19th best in the country. Should he cross the 4,000-yard threshold again this season, Kelly (below) will become the first signal caller in SEC annals to do so on more than one occasion.
Nevertheless, unlike Cook, he goes into the 2016 campaign surrounded by an altered supporting cast.
Both of his offensive tackles from a year ago, Laremy Tunsil — an uncommon talent and first-round pick — and Fahn Cooper, are now in the NFL. New left tackle Rod Taylor previously played at guard.
At the skill positions, the Rebs no longer have top rusher Jaylen Walton, who’s out of eligibility. An even bigger loss is Laquon Treadwell, who, like Tunsil, had special gifts and, like Tunsil, was a first-rounder. He reeled in more than twice as many passes as any Ole Miss receiver last season.
Even though there is strength in numbers, Kelly doesn’t appear to have a definitive primary target.
Quincy Adebojeyo and Damore’ea Stringfellow are currently atop the depth chart. They caught 38 and 36 passes last year, respectively. Neither is Treadwell, but both of them possess explosive traits.
Markell Pack, DeMarkus Lodge, DeKaylin Metcalf and Van Jefferson make up the rest of the two-deep, although Pack is the only one from that quartet to record more than a single reception last season. Another name to remember is A.J. Brown, a true freshman with enough ability to contribute quickly.
Tight end Evan Engram is also an experienced pass catcher on the preseason Mackey Award watch list.
There is reason to believe that Kelly will have zero trouble making the necessary adjustments. As a JUCO transfer a season ago, it’s not like he had a two- or three-year relationship with Treadwell.
Facing then-No. 1 Alabama in Tuscaloosa this past September, his first career start facing a ranked opponent, Kelly connected on 18-of-31 passes for 341 yards with 3 touchdowns and 0 interceptions in a 43-37 upset — the Crimson Tide wouldn’t lose again on the way to another national championship.
With ‘Bama looming in Week 3, FSU fields a defense with just as many four- and five-star recruits.
The pass rushers of note are DeMarcus Walker (above) and Josh Sweat. Walker, who turned down a chance to go to the NFL early, registered 10.5 sacks in 2015. Sweat, just a sophomore, is a star in the making.
The ‘Noles also have plenty of playmakers in the secondary. Despite the departure of Jalen Ramsey, one of the best cover guys in school history, the next do-everything defensive back in Tallahassee is Derwin James. Play the run, defend the pass, blitz off the edge — there’s nothing he can’t do.
As a true freshman last year, he was one of the top defenders in the entire nation by season’s end.
Because Kelly has already carved up a Tide defense that was loaded with future pros, he can surely do the same thing to Florida State. Even Fisher knows he’ll have to score plenty of points to win.
The outcome could be determined by how well the Rebs contain Cook. In nine of 12 games a year ago, the 5-foot-11, 213-pounder averaged at least 6.3 yards per carry — even with an assortment of leg ailments. He had eight 100-yard ground games, twice topped 200 and seven times scored multiple TDs.
He also steamrolled some Top 25 rushing defenses, getting 194 yards at Clemson and 183 at Florida.
Ole Miss faced two running backs on Cook’s level last season. Alabama’s Derrick Henry had 23 totes for 127 yards and a touchdown. LSU’s Leonard Fournette got 108 yards on 25 carries without a score.
The Rebels do return linebacker DeMarquis Gates, their top tackler in 2015, but their second, third and fourth leading stoppers — Mike Hilton, Trae Elson and Denzel Nkemdiche, respectively — are no more. Like the receiving corps, there are bodies waiting to blossom. But some of them are unproven.
Kelly and Cook will get theirs. They’re both terrific. If one of them goes wild, there’s your likely winner.