Final thoughts (and a prediction) for Texas A&M-Ole Miss
There’s something beautiful about a top-15 showdown between SEC West teams in November. It just means … a lot.
It’s especially big for an Ole Miss program that will host College GameDay for the 1st time since Katy Perry set the Internet ablaze and waved corndogs in our faces on national television back in 2014. Things have changed a lot since then. We were in the 1st year of the Playoff, Hugh Freeze was the on-the-rise Ole Miss coach and “All About That Bass” was the No. 1 song on the Billboard Top 100.
Simpler times, indeed.
Saturday won’t carry the same significance as that Alabama-Ole Miss game did 7 years ago, but it will have some high stakes. This is an SEC West elimination game for a pair of teams that still need some chaos to get to Atlanta.
More realistically, it’s a prime opportunity to perhaps all but lock in a New Year’s 6 bowl bid. Lane Kiffin has never led a team to a New Year’s 6 bowl as a head coach. A&M is trying to earn consecutive New Year’s 6 bowl berths for the 1st time since the concept began in the Playoff era.
In other words, yes, Saturday night is big for both of these programs. Let’s dig into how it could play out:
1. Matt Corral is playing through some pain, and it’s pretty obvious
If you watched Corral since he went down in that Tennessee game, you saw someone who clearly wasn’t at 100 percent. Is that an excuse? Not for Corral. Is that reality, though? Definitely. Ever since he carried the ball 30 times against Tennessee, we’ve seen Corral’s mobility dip. His overall production shows it, too.
Anybody who has watched the Ole Miss offense can see that it’s not quite at the level we saw in the 1st part of the season. Can that also be partially attributed to the banged-up pass catchers? Sure, but Corral is really what makes this thing go.
Ask Bo Nix about facing that A&M front. You need your full mobility. The Aggies can make signal-callers uncomfortable as much as anyone in the country outside of Georgia. This isn’t going to be like Liberty, which rarely got in Corral’s face, and he essentially had clean pockets to throw into throughout the day.
This is his toughest individual matchup of the year. That includes the Alabama game. A&M is that good at every level.
If Corral is walking with a limp in the 1st quarter, yikes. And on the flip side, if he were to win this game and pull out a gritty performance, he should absolutely vault back into the 1st breath of the Heisman conversation.
2. Which backfield would you rather have?
It’s a fair question because both are darned good.
A&M’s Isaiah Spiller and Devon Achane both have a chance to finish with 1,000-yard seasons. They both hit at least 98 rushing yards in each of the last 3 games, most recently against a solid Auburn defense. Both have home-run play ability, too. Spiller has 4 runs of 40-plus yards, while Achane has 3. Both can catch passes out of the backfield, too — they have a combined 41 catches for 371 yards. It’s an ideal 1-2 punch. It’s unfair to call them a “thunder and lightning” duo because that minimizes each of their individual capabilities.
Spiller is more of a thumper, but here’s the big-play ability:
ISAIAH SPILLER FOR SIX 🔥
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) September 25, 2021
And Achane literally has world-class speed, but here’s the power to run through multiple defenders:
— Still One King (@StillOneKing1) November 1, 2020
You could describe Ole Miss’ backfield in that same way. Kiffin has a legit trio, and that’s not even including Corral. Jerrion Ealy, Snoop Conner and Henry Parrish Jr. have helped fuel the No. 5 rushing attack in FBS. All of them have between 72-89 carries and between 436-471 rushing yards. That’s about as even of a split as a trio can have. Part of that was because Ealy dealt with a concussion, but still. They’re all dangerous in their own way. Conner is darn near automatic near the goal line, Ealy is the 5-star dynamo in space (when healthy) and Parrish is a bit of a hybrid.
Both teams would probably prefer to rely heavily on these backfields instead of having their quarterbacks risk taking some big hits (remember that A&M’s backup is a walk-on, and Zach Calzada had his shoulder go numb after inexplicably deciding he could take on Smoke Monday). It wouldn’t be surprising to see each backfield get upwards of 35-40 carries.
It’s hard to say either backfield is definitively better. I suppose that’s why they play the games.
3. Jalen Wydermyer remains immensely important for A&M
Last week when I previewed Auburn-A&M, I wrote about how I wanted to see Wydermyer get rolling. At the time, we had yet to see him have consecutive games with 40 receiving yards, though he was coming off his best performance of the year in a 75-yard, 2-touchdown showing against South Carolina. Well, we saw Wydermyer featured heavily once again. He didn’t get into the end zone, but he had 5 catches for 53 yards.
More important was that Calzada kept targeting him even though Wydermyer had 2 drops. That’s an issue he has been dealing with all year. But he’s too impactful for A&M to just stop targeting him.
There aren’t many tight ends who can get separation on a defensive back like this:
Who’s gonna be a problem for Alabama Saturday? Jalen Wydermyer. Arguably the best TE in CFB, Christian Harris & Jordan Battle will have their hands full in man coverage. pic.twitter.com/HpwnpOsHeg
— Jacob Harrison (@JHarrisonOTE) October 6, 2021
In Power 5 games when Wydermyer gets 40 receiving yards, A&M is 4-0. When he doesn’t? The Aggies are 1-2. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. We know that he’s going to continue to play the vast majority of the snaps in Jimbo Fisher’s offense, regardless of how many passes he’s hauling in. Only 3 Power 5 tight ends have played more snaps than Wydermyer this year.
A lot is expected of him, as it should be. He’s a 3-year starter who will go down as one of the program’s best tight ends ever. There’s a decent chance that Wydermyer, who is No. 2 among Mel Kiper’s tight end prospects, is gone for the NFL at season’s end. This is the type of game in which Wydermyer can add to his legacy with a crowd-silencing score or 2.
4. Chance Campbell will try to follow what Grant Morgan did to Calzada
That is, spy and hurry.
Campbell has become a master at it. Whether it was Max Johnson, Malik Willis or Malik Cunningham, Campbell has turned into a game-changer for his ability to keep mobile quarterbacks in check. Ole Miss didn’t have that last year. Now, the Maryland transfer deserves to be in the All-SEC discussion.
I’d expect to see a decent amount of drop-8 coverage from Ole Miss, similar to what Barry Odom ran against Calzada. Granted, that was Calzada’s 1st career SEC start, and for whatever reason, A&M didn’t want to rely on its dynamic backfield duo as much as it should have. On that day, Calzada struggled reading coverage and pressure. Morgan had 3 pressures and 1 sack in a game in which the Arkansas defense dominated.
We also saw Tre Williams consistently get to Calzada with Arkansas’ 3-man pass rush. Can Sam Williams do the same thing rushing off the edge for Ole Miss? The Rebels’ sack master was banged up in a dominant showing against Liberty, but Kiffin said he’s hopeful he can play.
That combination — Williams beating his man off the edge and forcing Calzada into the waiting arms of Campbell — would be huge for Ole Miss.
5. Can anyone on Ole Miss block Tyree Johnson? Shoot, can anyone in America?
I’ve been saying all week that they might just need to rename the SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week award after Johnson. The A&M defensive end now has 3 of them, the latest of which came after he had 2 sacks and helped keep Auburn out of the end zone. Seven of Johnson’s 8 sacks on the year have come in his last 4 games.
The guy just flies off the ball:
— SEConCBS (@SEConCBS) November 6, 2021
Oh, and here’s the scary thing. He said he wasn’t even at 100 percent against Auburn, which explains why he played only 19 snaps. That’s what we call efficiency.
Sure, it helps when you never get double-teamed because DeMarvin Leal, Jayden Peevy and Micheal Clemons are such forces up front. But let’s not take away from the job that Johnson has been doing.
That’s a bit worrisome given the aforementioned mobility concerns of Corral. Ole Miss’ offensive line has to protect Corral better than it did against Alabama, when Will Anderson and company got to him somewhat consistently. That could also impact Kiffin and Jeff Lebby’s play-calling. Will we see fewer shots downfield with a disrupter like Johnson off the edge? It’s possible.
You have to account for No. 3 in white and maroon whenever he steps on the field.
6. Winning coach gets the LSU job?
Just kidding. That was mean.
And a prediction … Texas A&M 28, Ole Miss 20
I’m such a big fan of what the Aggies’ defense has been doing in the last month or so. It can frustrate teams in so many ways. I didn’t even mention Antonio Johnson and Tyreek Chappell emerging into stars for the A&M secondary, which has helped fuel the No. 3 Power 5 unit in terms of passing efficiency defense.
Ever since falling behind 17-0 to Arkansas on Sept. 25, A&M is allowing 4.66 yards per play. Behind Georgia, it’s the No. 2 scoring defense in the country at a hair fewer than 14 points per game (take away non-offensive touchdowns and safeties).
Ole Miss will challenge that, but this comes back to Corral’s ankle not being right. He can grit his teeth and play through pain, yes, but it has limited him. A&M can make this a long night for the Ole Miss passing game. We’ve seen Corral make some uncharacteristic forced throws since the Tennessee injury, and that could happen once more against the Aggies.
All signs point to Spiller and Achane being the stars on Saturday night. Ole Miss’ defense has improved, but if there’s a weakness, it’s defending the ground game. Liberty nearly hit 300 rushing yards last week, and A&M’s rushing attack is on a different level from that.
Vaught-Hemingway should be an incredible atmosphere, and for the sake of Ole Miss fans who have been waiting for a meaningful November game for 6 years, I hope they soak all of that in.
But A&M looks like a team on a mission, and that mission continues in Oxford on Saturday night.