Ole Miss and Texas Tech open the season aturda NRG Stadium in Houston in what is expected to be an old-fashioned shootout between two dynamic offenses. Here are five storylines to watch for in Saturday’s season opener
The Scottie Phillips Debut
With Eric Swinney being ruled out for three weeks with mononucleosis, the Rebels will enter Saturday’s game without a running back on the roster that has taken a snap in a major college football game before, aside from D.K. Buford who had eight carries last season is thought to be mostly a special teams contributor. From the time junior college transfer Scottie Phillips arrived on campus in January, he has distanced himself as the favorite to replace Jordan Wilkins as Ole Miss’ bell cow. If Phillips is as good as advertised, then Swinney’s absence won’t be as visible and the Rebels should be fine. If he struggles or gets injured, then it is a different story. Expect to see redshirt freshman Isaiah Woullard get a few carries and possibly true freshman Tylan Knight or converted running back Armani Linton.
2. Who starts at quarterback for the Red Raiders
Kliff Kingsbury has yet to name a starter in what has been a three-horse race throughout the offseason. Though Kingsbury is tight-lipped about who will jog out as signal caller for the first offensive series, it will be likely be junior McClane Carter. The lefty started one game late in the season last year against Teas and went 16-for-37 with 237 yards and a touchdown in a 27-23 win. Carter is seen as the most likely choice ahead of sophomore Jett Duffey and true freshman Alan Bowman.
“The challenge is the QB’s are different,” Matt Luke said. “You got Carter who started the Texas game then you have Jett Duffey who is more of an athlete. They are totally different, and you have to prepare for both. Sometimes you don’t know exactly who you’ll get which makes it a challenge. We have practiced against both. We play a similar style offense, so our defense has seen it.”
3. Jordan Ta’amu’s decision making
Realistically, it would be hard to see Texas Tech being able to match up with Ole Miss on the perimeter with the receiving corps the Rebels have. That sentence could likely be said for most of the opponents on Ole Miss’ schedule. But the Red Raiders return 10 starters on a defense that led the Big 12 in turnovers in 2017 despite being rather pedestrian in pretty much every other facet. Texas Tech gave up 7.4 yards per completion to opponents last season and the Rebels should be able to get what they please in the vertical passing game as long as Ta’amu makes sound decisions with the football.
“They have a good defense,” Ta’amu said. “They have a great defensive line and good linebackers. Their job is to attack upfield and our job is to make them run.
This really extends to the entire Ole Miss offense in terms of ball security as the Red Raiders recovered 15 fumbles last season which ranked first in the Big 12 and fourth nationally. With Ole Miss being inexperienced at running back, it will be interesting to see how heavily Phil Longo relies on Ta’amu’s arm.
4. Ole Miss’ linebacking play and run defense.
This has where the microscope has been for most of fall camp for Ole Miss. The struggles to at linebacker and the inability to defend the run last season were well documented, and the Rebels are starting sophomore Mohamed Sanogo and true freshman Kevontae’ Ruggs at linebacker. How will the two young inexperienced players handle adverse situations? Sanogo spoke last week about the increased importance of knowing the alignment of the entire defense with a true freshman standing next to him.
Texas Tech was a pretty average team running the football a season ago and lost Justin Stockton, the team’s leading rusher with 797 yards. The Red Raiders ran for 2101 yards last season which ranked 7th in the Big 12. Defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff has mentioned multiple times that he plans on putting a large amount of responsibility on the secondary to give the Rebels more bodies in the box to stop the run. Texas Tech doesn’t have an all-world receiving corps by any means, but 6-foot-6 T.J. Vasher and 6-foot-5 Atoine Wesley could be difficult for Jaylon Jones and Myles Hartsfield to match up with. Both stand at 5-foot-11. If the Rebels can have moderate success stopping the run, it will greatly increase their chances to win the game.
5. Game management
This is really more of a season-long storyline rather than one solely tied to this game, but it will be interesting to see how Luke handles the various clock management and the situational football challenges that arise in the game. Luke has now had a trial run at being a head coach andOle Miss wasn’t awful in this department by any means, but they did have some clock management slip ups a season ago. The Arkansas game and the end of the first half in the Egg Bowl immediately come to mind. A lot of that is simply natural for a guy acting as a head coach for the first time (with little time to prepare given the circumstances last year), but Luke has now had an offseason to put his brand on the program. How will he handle various situations differently? Will have time adjustments be improved?
“You’re always looking for ways to improve,” Luke said. “I think just going through that experience, just all that stuff helps but always year to year you always look at yourself. What can I do better? And not even year to year, week to week, we’re always looking for ways to improve.”
Kickoff is set for 11 A.M.