Evaluating Ole Miss' schedule outside the SEC West
It’s no secret to the Ole Miss Rebels just how stacked the SEC West is likely to be this fall.
Despite entering 2014 with the conference’s most experienced starting quarterback (Bo Wallace and his 26 career starts), the Rebels still face a daunting schedule loaded with divisional opponents.
To clarify, every West team will have to play every other West team, thus Ole Miss does not have it harder than any other team in that regard. But with a schedule that includes games against Alabama, A&M, LSU and Auburn within a five-week span, it will be critical the Rebels take advantage of their six games outside the West if they wish to make any noise in the weekly polls.
Let’s break down those six games:
- Boise State, neutral site (Atlanta), Aug. 28: In typical Boise State fashion, the Broncos scheduled a prominent non-conference opponent to validate themselves before regressing into the abyss of whatever conference they plays in nowadays. Still, this won’t be a cake-walk for the Rebels. Boise returns fifth-year senior Grant Hedrick under center, its leading rusher from a year ago in Jay Ajayi (coming off 1,400 yards and 18 touchdowns) and its leading receiver from 2013 in Matt Miller (1,100 yards, 12 touchdowns). Former coach Chris Pederson may be gone to Washington, but many of his star-studded recruiting classes still stack the Broncos’ starting lineup, and while Ole Miss has the more talented team it cannot sleep on this opponent.
- Vanderbilt, away, Sept. 6: The Rebels won’t get an opportunity to rest after playing a difficult Boise State team in the season opener on a neutral field. Vanderbilt and new coach Derek Mason, however, will open the season against Temple, and should be fresh on its home field when Ole Miss arrives. Vanderbilt is not known for raucous crowds in Nashville, but the Vandy faithful may make an exception for Mason’s first SEC contest. This game was an instant classic a year ago, and these two cross-division rivals are plenty familiar with one another. That said, Vanderbilt still has not named an opening day starter at quarterback, and the turmoil at that position should give Wallace and the Rebels a leg up.
- Louisiana-Lafayette, home, Sept. 13: In addition to having one of the greatest nicknames in Division I, the Ragin’ Cajuns are coming off a nine-win season capped by a 24-21 bowl victory over Tulane in December. Much like Boise but to a lesser degree, this is a very competent non-conference opponent whose true potential is tough to determine while it plays a non-power conference schedule. Ole Miss cannot afford to lose this game, and allowing a successful mid-major the opportunity to hang around in the second half of a game in September is a recipe for disaster. Look for Ole Miss to establish itself early in this game to eliminate any threat of an upset.
- Memphis, home, Sept. 27: Fans in the Memphis-Oxford area are rejoicing over the return of this non-conference rivalry. And while the atmosphere should be fun, the game itself likely won’t be, especially if you’re a Tigers fan. Memphis won just three games last season and just one in the American Athletic Conference. You’ll notice Ole Miss also gets an extra week to rest up and prepare for this smackdown. Need I say more, Rebels fans? This one ought to be over early.
- Tennessee, home, October 18: Remember that grueling four games in five weeks stretch I mentioned earlier? This is the fifth game in that stretch, coming after a ‘Bama-A&M back-to-back and right before a pair of games against LSU and Auburn. Tennessee, meanwhile, takes on Chattanooga the week before traveling to Oxford, proving this game is as much about the two teams at hand as it is about when it falls in each team’s schedule. Vols’ coach Butch Jones continues to built the program back up from where Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley left it, and this game against what should be a battered Ole Miss squad could be a statement game for Tennessee. The Justin Worley-Nathan Peterman quarterback competition wages on, but if Jones and company can find any rhythm on offense this season this could be a dangerous game for the Rebels.
- Presbyterian, home, Nov. 8: Most SEC teams like to sneak an FCS opponent somewhere on their schedules each year, and by “sneak” I mean “compensate handsomely to take a road trip and get smacked around by grown men.” For Ole Miss, that team in 2014 is the Presbyterian Blue Hose (that’s really their name). This game is all about avoiding injuries and staying sharp for the final two weeks of the regular season. Sure we can talk about the Appalachian State’s of years past and how “there’s a reason they actually play the games,” but nothing short of a miracle will cost Ole Miss an easy victory in its final non-conference game of the season.
So there you have it – three near-certain victories, one daring neutral site showdown, one budding cross-division rivalry and one game against an emerging program during the toughest month of the season.
Ole Miss could feasibly breeze through these games with a perfect 6-0 record, and it will likely have to if it wants any chance at a 10-win season or better. But the Rebels could also falter to a 3-3 record against non-West opponents, which would likely cost the team any chance at winning more than seven games.
The West is certain to be a gauntlet, but unless Ole Miss can take care of business against teams like Boise, Vandy and Tennessee, this team has no chance at reaching its ceiling.