Hmmm. Between the California Golden Bears and Ole Miss Rebels, I wonder which team feels more sheepish about their recent wins? Cal escaped Conference USA member North Texas after taking a 20-0 first-quarter lead, gutting out a 23-17 victory. Ole Miss jumped out to a 13-3 lead on FCS Southeastern Louisiana but could not shake the Lions, hanging on for a tough 40-29 win.
Whew! Right guys?
Cal jumped into the AP Top 25 for the first time this season after beating the Mean Green, giving the Pac-12 six teams in the rankings. The last time the Occidental conference had six teams in the Top 25 was in November 2015. Ole Miss has the dangling carrot of a bowl game back after two years of probation. Considering the schedule ahead, this is nearly a must-win for Johnny Reb.
California at Ole Miss
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 21 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Ole Miss -2
When California Has the Ball
The Bears need touchdowns, not field goals. Everything looked good against North Texas last week as Cal raced out to a 20-0 lead, which included two field goals from Greg Thomas. But after posting 129 yards in the first quarter, the offense started to choke, gaining just 150 yards in the last three quarters. Next thing you know, the Mean Green outscored the Bears 17-3 the rest of the way and had an upset in their sights before losing 23-17.
The first thing to fix the Bears offensive ills is that quarterback Chase Garbers has got to get more comfortable. He completed just nine passes in 22 attempts last week and also ran for his life time and again with impromptu scrambles. Head coach Justin Wilcox has talked about better execution from his offense and making things a little easier for his QB, so look for more quick passes and screens and higher-percentage throws to help give the offense a kick in the butt.
Beware the Landshark defense. New coordinator Mike MacIntyre and his 3-4 alignment have emphasized the fact that Ole Miss has to stop the run. Doing that against Cal will be tough as the Bears average 191.3 rushing yards per game, led by Christopher Brown Jr., who has 324 yards through three games. The Rebels have been aggressive, ranking ninth in the county with 27 tackles for a loss through three games, which also is the most in the SEC.
When Ole Miss Has the Ball
So can Matt (ahem) corral the quarterback position? It appears as if the coaching staff is set on making the Ventura, California, native their star QB come hell or high water. And he has delivered, hitting on 63 percent of his passes with just one pick so far. Against Arkansas, the redshirt freshman was 16-of-24 for 246 yards and two TDs to earn SEC Freshman of the Week honors. But this will be his biggest challenge yet, as the Bears sport the top defensive backfield in the country according to that TV network with four letters. How will the youngster react to his first starting assignment against a ranked team?
New stars are starting to emerge. Frosh RB/returner Jerrion Ealy is a five-star recruit who has insane speed and used it to account for 243 first-half yards to put the Rebels ahead 20-10 on Southeastern Louisiana at the break. Scottie Phillips is averaging more than 100 yards per game on the ground and sophomore receiver/return man Elijah Moore has become not only the go-to receiver on third down but also the biggest game-breaker on the team. These three need big games to take the pressure off Corral.
Must be sound in the special teams. Every coach says that, especially early in the season. It's a mixed bag for the Rebels, who saw Ealy hit pay dirt on a 92-yard kickoff return vs. the Lions, but then also saw placekicker Luke Logan miss an extra point and a 42-yard field goal. Meanwhile, Wilcox was big on his return teams, getting sizable kick and punt returns from Jeremiah Hawkins and Nikko Remigio respectively. Also, as mentioned above, Thomas nailed all of his kicks vs. North Texas and was named Pac-12 Special Teams Player of the Week. If it comes down to a game of field goals, advantage Bears.
It's not often a Pac-12 team plays in an SEC stadium, this being the first since UCLA at Texas A&M in 2016. But the bigger factor is that this will be a 9 a.m. game, Pacific Time. Any time a west coast team has a 1,700-mile trip followed by an early morning start, it spells trouble.
Also, Cal finished last week's game without linebackers Tevin Paul, Chinedu Udeogu, and Cameron Goode due to in-game injuries. Prior to that, three O-linemen missed the North Texas game. If those guys aren't ready to go, that attrition could be a factor in this one. All things being equal, I'd take the Bears. But the Hotty Toddy boys have a few variables pointing their direction. The Grove is gonna be lit.
Prediction: Ole Miss 24, Cal 20
— Written by Eric Sorenson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He is a college football, college baseball and college hockey addict... and writer. Follow him on Twitter @Stitch_Head.