Post-Spring Previews: Ole Miss

The fourth week of the season brings the heavily hyped Ole Miss Rebels to Columbia for a Thursday night game. The Rebels open the season against Memphis and Southeast Louisiana, so they should be undefeated and ranked fairly highly for this game. If we beat NC State and UGA (keep your fingers crossed), we will likely also come in as a top 15 team, setting up an early season matchup of ranked SEC squads. In any event , this will be a huge game for both teams; for Ole Miss, it's a necessary hurdle to prove they're ready to meet expectations, and for South Carolina, it's an opportunity to establish ourselves as a surprise team.

Let's see how we stack up against Ole Miss.

Offense

Quarterback

The Rebels return junior quarterback Jevan Snead. Snead is widely regarded as having one of the best arms in college football and could very well be the top overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft if he has a good year. While I have high hopes for Stephen Garcia this year, it would be hard to say that any signal caller not from Gainesville, Austin, or Norman doesn't have a strong disadvantage against Snead, who comes into this season as a dark horse Heisman contender.

Verdict: Strong advantage Ole Miss

Running Backs

Ole Miss returns a plethora of talent for what should be a tailback by committee approach. Cordera Eason, Brandon Bolden, and Enrique Davis are all backs that can run for both speed and power, and all will see time on the field. And none is was the Rebels leading rusher last year. That honor would go to Dexter McCluster, who is a receiver but lines up under center in the "Wild Rebel" formation, from which he often runs the ball. McCluster is the fastest of this group. All of these options are good news for Houston Nutt, a master at coordinating effective running attacks. I expect a much improved running game for the Gamecocks this year, but it won't be as good as what Ole Miss brings.

Verdict: Slight advantage Ole Miss

Wide Receivers and Tights Ends

Although they lose Mike Wallace, the Rebels return a set of big play receivers in McCluster, Shay Hodge, and Markeith Summers. This group has tons of speed and Ole Miss as a team averaged over 15 yards per completion last year. That's scary against our young secondary. I like the Rebels here.

Verdict: Slight advantage Ole Miss

Offensive Line

This is the big question mark for what is an otherwise star-studded Ole Miss offense. Star left tackle Michael Oher and both guards are gone, leaving big shoes for the new crop of players to fill. The Rebels have talent coming to play, including tackle Bradley Sowell, who will take over for Oher. However, they won't have much time to gel before playing us (again, we're their first big-time opponent), and an injury to Sowell or right tackle John Jerry could spell disaster. I would say we have a slight advantage here if our guys continue to improve.

Verdict: Slight advantage South Carolina

Defense

Defensive Line

Although they lost Peria Jerry to the NFL from a unit that led the SEC in tackles for a loss, Ole Miss has what is probably the league's best defensive line. Greg Hardy and Jerrell Powe are the two everyone is talking about, but Marcus Tillman and Kendrell Lockett are also pretty good. I like our defensive line a lot this year (although I worry about depth), but I think Ole Miss has a slight advantage here.

Verdict: Slight advantage Ole Miss

Linebacker

Ole Miss graduates its best players at the linebacker positions, Tony Fein and Ashlee Palmer. The Rebels do return some solid players with significant experience, such as Patrick Trahan. However, this is a question mark area for them; they certainly don't have anyone like Eric Norwood. If we can hold their linemen at bay, I like our chances to run the ball against these guys as well as to set up mismatches in the short to mid-range passing game.

Verdict: Strong advantage South Carolina

Secondary

Although they return some experience at these positions, there are concerns here for the Rebels, as Ole Miss's secondary was the weak link in an otherwise stout Ole Miss defense last year. This isn't to say they're a horrible unit. They played well at times, such as in the Cotton Bowl against a high-flying Texas Tech offense. However, Ole Miss was usually a team you could pass against if you could protect your QB long enough; don't forget, this is a team that Chris Smelley more or less torched. While we have some questions here due to departures, we have some talented players returning and some good incoming talent that should give us a slight advantage here.

Verdict: Slight advantage South Carolina

Special Teams

The Rebels return one of the conference's better placekickers in Joshua Shene. Their main return guys last year were Marshey Green and the departed Mike Wallace; both of the punt and kickoff return units were better than average last year, but losing the speedy Wallace leaves a hole to fill. Their coverage units were also pretty good. With a lot of question marks to answer after losing Ryan Succop, Captain Munnerlyn, and coach Ray Rychleski, I'd say we're at a disadvantage here until we prove otherwise, although I do like our return units when Chris Culliver has the ball.

Verdict: Slight advantage Ole Miss

Head Coach

In the wake of Ole Miss's surprising 2008, pundits everywhere have proclaimed the greatness of Houston Nutt and have derided Arkansas for ever letting him get away. I can't say I agree with this sentiment. Nutt is certainly a good coach and has no peer in terms of motivating his teams to win big games. However, he has some shortcomings that have kept him from the top despite the fact that he had the talent in place with his last two Arkansas teams to win the SEC. First of all, the guy seemed afriad of the forward pass at Arkansas, even when he had Mitch Mustain under center. To his credit, he seems to be embracing post-1960s football these days at Ole Miss. Second of all, his bickering with coaches and off-field shenanigans cost him Mustain, a few other players, and talent offensive coordinator Guz Malzahn for the 2007 season, which could have been a big one for Arkansas. Finally, although he brought some good players to Arkansas, for the most part he's been a very average recruiter, unless you call signing 35+ players this past year at Ole Miss the sign of recruiting prowess. Lest we forget, Nutt's success in Oxford has come courtesy of Ed Orgeron's recruiting talents. This isn't to say that Nutt isn't a better coach than Orgeron; he is. I just don't think he's the genius everyone is saying he is right now. A couple of years ago, before he upset number one LSU in Baton Rouge, nobody was saying this stuff. I'd call comparing him to Spurrier, who has a great legacy but hasn't produced as of late, a push.

Verdict: Push

Overall

My general impression when comparing these teams is that we should have a slightly better defense than Ole Miss, while they should have a much better offense than us. This isn't necessarily to say that we won't have a good offense this year; the fact is, Ole Miss projects to have a truly great one if they live up to expectations. The thing I like about how we match up against them, though, is the Ole Miss offensive line / USC defensive line matchup. We should be able to get some pressure on these guys, which could be key to keeping them from scoring 30+ against us. Of coure, the battle between our o line against their d line will be important, as well; if we can't contain Hardy and Powe, we could be looking at one of those five sacks, four turnovers games we've grown accustomed to. The other thing I like about this game is that it's in Columbia on a Thursday night. All in all, I think the Rebels are probably a slightly better team than us, but I think we'll manage to pull out an upset here.

Prediction: Gamecocks by a field goal

P. S. This prediction has homer written all over it; expect this game to be brutally tough to win.

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