Breaking down the weekend’s SEC slate, all in one place.

Game of the Week: Ole Miss at LSU (–1.5)

The stakes

How seriously are we taking Ole Miss down the stretch? The Rebels are a very different team than the one that finished 10-3 in 2021, and at 7-0, they’ve cruised about as far below the national radar to this point as an undefeated SEC outfit in mid-October can go. Ole Miss hasn’t been 8-0 in 60 years.

Still, whatever else they owe to an unusually backloaded schedule, it has also presented the Rebels with a very big opportunity. Saturday’s trip to Baton Rouge (where Ole Miss hasn’t won since 2008) is the 2nd date in a 7-week, 6-game tour against the rest of the SEC West, which kicked off last week with a 48-34 win over Auburn. Their chances of surviving that gauntlet unscathed are virtually nil: Just 1 percent, per ESPN’s Football Power Index. Even with a likely loss baked in, though, their current chances of winning the division (23.5 percent) and/or making the Playoff (10 percent) are substantially better. Not good, but not outside the realm of plausibility. Beating LSU on the road — on top of the deep personal satisfaction Ole Miss fans take in beating LSU, period — would be a major step toward solidifying the idea that the Rebels are real contenders with bigger fish to fry.

With 2 losses on the books, LSU isn’t thinking nearly as big, although at 3-1 in SEC play, all the relevant conference goals are still on the table. Last week’s 45-35 win at Florida was arguably the best the Tigers have looked this season (certainly on offense); follow that up Saturday with Brian Kelly’s 1st big home win over a top-10 opponent, and the “momentum” narrative is alive and well heading into a Nov. 5 collision with Alabama. From there, who knows? This is the time of year when we really find out what’s real and what isn’t, and every aced test just means an even bigger one is on deck.

The stat: 6.24 yards per carry

That’s Ole Miss’ average gain on 1st-down runs this season, 9th best nationally and the foundation for everything else the Rebels want to accomplish in their RPO-heavy scheme.

In contrast to its go-for-broke reputation, Ole Miss was the SEC’s most run-oriented offense over the 1st half of the season, keeping it on the ground on 64.2 percent of its total snaps and averaging more rushing yards per game (271.1) than any FBS offense outside of the full-time triple-option attacks at Air Force and Army. The top backs, true freshman Quinshon Judkins and TCU transfer Zach Evans, are both breakaway threats on pace to run for 1,000 yards apiece, while the 3rd wheel, QB Jaxson Dart, presents more than enough of a threat to keep defenses honest in the zone-read game. (Dart isn’t a burner, by any means, but like Matt Corral before him he’s a decent athlete who is not inclined to slide or skip out of bounds when there are more yards to be had, either.) Last week’s 69-carry, 448-yard romp against Auburn was a proof-of-concept kind of afternoon, representing Ole Miss’ best rushing output vs. any opponent since 1962.

Beyond the raw yardage, the Rebels’ success establishing the run is reflected in other a couple other telling stats. One, they’re converting 55.2 percent on 3rd downs, the best rate in the SEC and 3rd best nationally — a direct result of staying “on schedule” and generating a lot of 3rd-and-short situations. (Exactly half of their 48 3rd-down conversions have come with 3 yards or less to go.) And two, nearly two-thirds of Dart’s pass attempts this season (65.9 percent) have come off play-action, according to Pro Football Focus, easily the highest rate in the country. Only 4 other FBS quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts are over 50 percent. With Ole Miss’ talent at wideout, when it’s running the ball effectively enough on early downs to force a steady diet of 7-man boxes and/or deep safeties to start thinking run 1st, it’s also laying the groundwork for play-action strikes.

LSU has struggled lately against the run, giving up 200-plus rushing yards each of the past 2 weeks against Tennessee (263 on 5.4 yards per carry) and Florida (210 on 6.4 ypc). Subtract a jaw-dropping, 81-yard touchdown run by Florida QB Anthony Richardson, and that 2nd number doesn’t look so bad; that still leaves the paving at the hands of the Vols, whose fast-paced, play-action-heavy scheme is very similar to Ole Miss’, and “what if you just ignore a huge play” is never a reassuring caveat, anyway. The Tigers’ front-line talent along the defensive line is enviable, but ends BJ Ojulari and Ali Gaye are primarily pass rushers, and they’ve sorely missed injured DT Maason Smith on the interior. His replacement, Missouri transfer Mekhi Wingo, is the SEC’s top-graded defender against the run per PFF, but the rotation is thin, and Ole Miss’ tempo is designed to stress the defense’s depth as the game wears on. (And for the record, Wingo’s season grade is distorted by a fat number vs. Southern U.) Slowing the Rebels down and forcing Dart out of his comfort zone are top priorities, and both hinge on putting them behind the chains early and often.

The big question: Is LSU’s passing game finally in sync?

It took half a season, but Jayden Daniels and his gifted fleet of receivers were on the same wavelength against Florida, yielding season highs for yards per attempt (10.9), touchdowns (3) and overall efficiency (194.4) vs. an FBS opponent. The Tigers scored 6 TDs in Gainesville on their first 6 possessions, 2 more than they’d scored in their previous 2 games against Auburn and Tennessee combined.

Specifically, Daniels found a rhythm with the slumping Kayshon Boutte, who looked like his old, blue-chip self for the 1st time since returning from the ankle injury that sidelined him midway through last season. Prior to last week, getting the ball in Boutte’s hands felt like the play-calling equivalent of sawing away at an overcooked steak: Way too much work for not nearly the reward you’d hoped for. He came in with just 130 yards on 7.6 per catch, and with almost as many drops (5) as 1st downs (8). Against the Gators, though, he made his presence felt right away, hauling in a 40-yard gain on LSU’s 3rd offensive snap, and added 5 more receptions for 75 yards over the rest of the night.

Ole Miss fans, of course, remember Boutte all too well from his breakout game in 2020, when he went off for an SEC-record 308 yards and 3 touchdowns against the Rebels as a true freshman. He was targeted in that game an astounding 21 times, only one of the many reasons that memory must seem to LSU fans like it’s a lot more than just 2 years old. They’d love nothing more than to see him max out his potential in the closing stretch of his college career before moving on to the next level.

The key matchup: LSU OTs Will Campbell and Emery Jones Jr. vs. Ole Miss DEs Tavius Robinson, Cedric Johnson and Jared Ivey

No SEC quarterback has spent more time under duress than Daniels, who by PFF’s count has faced pressure on a league-high 79 dropbacks resulting in a league-high 21 sacks. There’s plenty of blame for those numbers to go around, including a fair share reserved for Daniels himself. But the Tigers’ true-freshman tackles, Campbell and Jones, have predictably taken their lumps. Jones, especially, has struggled on the right side, allowing an SEC-worst 16 pressures across 5 starts and a sack in each of the past 3 games.

However optimistic LSU may be about its fledgling bookends long-term, that’s a red-flag situation opposite Ole Miss’ pass rush. Robinson, Johnson and Ivey have been more or less interchangeable, emerging as one of the conference’s most productive edge rotations with a combined 63 QB pressures and 8 sacks among them.

Daniels’ best asset is his escapability: His 37 scrambles are tied for the national lead, yielding an FBS-best 363 scramble yards. No doubt he’ll have to draw on that mobility again to extend plays and drives, as usual. Like all quarterbacks, though, he’s at his best when he’s kept clean. The less often he’s forced to improvise, the better the timing with his wideouts, and the more convincing the case that last week’s hyper-efficient turn in The Swamp is the new normal.

The verdict

Lane Kiffin worked the transfer portal as hard last winter as any coach in America, and the overhauled lineup he assembled as a result made Ole Miss one of the season’s biggest wild cards. Seven games in, it still is. Although it has barely been challenged — only 1 win, a 22-19 decision over Kentucky, has been decided by single digits — the point spread for this one reflects lingering skepticism of the Rebels’ schedule to date and their ability to pull off a meaningful win on the road. Their season still has the potential to go in any direction as the degree of difficult ramps up. Saturday may not tell us where they’re going to wind up, but it will finally give us a good idea about which direction they’re pointed.
– – –
• Ole Miss 33
| LSU 28

Mississippi State at Alabama (–21)

This is the 2nd year in a row and the 3rd time in the past 4 years Mississippi State has the misfortune of drawing Alabama immediately following a Bama loss, which tends to go as poorly as you’d expect. Last year, the Crimson Tide responded to their 1st and only regular-season loss at Texas A&M by trashing the Bulldogs in Starkville, 49-9, to put their season back on track. In 2019, they crushed the Dogs 38-7 on the rebound from that season’s epic loss to LSU, in a game remembered mainly for the devastating injury suffered by Tua Tagovailoa after the outcome was already clear. In fact, in the amazingly small sample size of rebound games Alabama has played in the Saban era the Saturday after a loss, the target has often landed on Mississippi State, and the result has always been the same:

I’m as skeptical of Bama’s secondary as the next guy after watching Tennessee set it aflame, but a) that performance was as much about Tennessee’s abundant firepower as it was about the Tide, and b) Mississippi State has no such weapons. The Bulldogs will throw it a lot; throwing it effectively, against a defense with no reason to respect the deep ball, is another story. So is playing in Tuscaloosa, as opposed to the kind of mad-house environment on the road that has given Alabama so much trouble the past 2 seasons. If this one’s still in doubt in the 4th quarter, it might be really time to worry.
– – –
• Alabama 41
| Mississippi State 17

Texas A&M (–3) at South Carolina

The search resumes for signs of life on Texas A&M’s offense. The Aggies limped into last week’s open date ranked last in the SEC in both yards and points per game, while averaging the fewest plays of any Power 5 team outside of the resolutely slothful attack at Iowa. The passing game remains anemic, and the only proven playmaker, junior RB/KR Devon Achane, has singlehandedly accounted for 35 percent of the team’s all-purpose yards — an untenable number if A&M has any ambition left beyond eking out bowl eligility.

The looming question over the 2nd half of the season is how long Jimbo Fisher is willing to stick with Haynes King behind center while 5-star freshman Conner Weigman waits in the wings. King is expected to start against South Carolina after gritting through a sore foot in the Aggies’ upset bid at Alabama. As long as he’s available, the biggest complicating factor is Weigman’s redshirt: He has yet to see the field, meaning he can still appear in up to 4 games without burning it. Ideally, King will remain upright and halfway viable for at least another couple weeks, allowing Weigman to preserve the redshirt before he’s free to be called up in November. But then, at the current pace, another 3 weeks of watching this offense is liable to feel like an epic slog. If the switch is inevitable (it is), maybe the sooner the better.
– – –
• Texas A&M 27
| South Carolina 20

Vanderbilt at Missouri (–13.5)

Low stakes in the standings, but urgency here on both sides: For Vanderbilt, it’s the Commodores’ best chance this year to snap an ongoing 24-game SEC losing streak; for Missouri, it’s an opportunity to not lose to Vandy when patience with head coach Eli Drinkwitz is already running thin. At 2-4, Mizzou is a long shot for bowl eligility as it is. Beating the league’s resident doormat won’t change that, but it would snap a 4-game skid vs. FBS opponents and stave off rock bottom. At this point, any result that doesn’t make the situation worse is a good one.
– – –
Missouri 34
| • Vanderbilt 23

UT-Martin at Tennessee (n/a)

Tennessee has earned a hangover, which makes lining up an FCS tomato can for post-Alabama Saturday a work of scheduling genius. The Vols should treat this as much like a preseason game without putting the outcome at risk as possible.
– – –
Tennessee 52
| UT-Martin 13


Week 7 Record: 5–1 straight-up | 6–0 vs. spread
Season Record: 49–8 straight-up | 27–28 vs. spread