Week 1 of the 2016 college football season concludes in Orlando, Fla. with Florida State and Ole Miss meeting for the first time since 1961. High expectations surround both teams for 2016, and a win in this neutral site affair would provide an early boost in building a playoff resume.
Jimbo Fisher has returned Florida State as one of the nation’s top programs on an annual basis, and the Seminoles are picked by Athlon Sports to reach the national championship in 2016. Florida State finished 10-3 in a “rebuilding year” last fall, and this program is loaded with talent on both sides of the ball, with Heisman Trophy candidate Dalvin Cook leading the way on offense. The defense is anchored by standout senior end DeMarcus Walker, while sophomore Derwin James is already one the nation’s best players.
Hugh Freeze has helped Ole Miss emerge as one of the top teams in the SEC West over the last few seasons, and this team returns enough talent to absorb the departure of three first-round NFL draft picks. The Rebels have increased their win total in each of the last three years after a 7-6 mark in Freeze’s debut and won 19 games from 2014-15 – the most by this program since 1959-1960. Freeze entered the offseason with work to do on both sides of the ball, but the transition period should be eased with the return of quarterback Chad Kelly. The senior is one of the top signal-callers in college football and returns after throwing for 4,042 yards and 31 scores in his first season at Ole Miss last fall.
Ole Miss and Florida State have met only one previous time. The Rebels won 33-0 in Oxford in 1961.
Ole Miss vs. Florida State (Orlando, Fla.)
Kickoff: Monday, Sept. 5 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Florida State – 4.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Dalvin Cook vs. Ole Miss’ Run Defense
Despite a couple of nagging injuries last season, Florida State running back Dalvin Cook set a new school record with 1,691 rushing yards and averaged a healthy 7.4 yards per carry on 229 attempts. Cook is one of the leading candidates to win the Heisman in 2016, and as evidenced by his four carries of 70 yards or more last season, is capable of delivering a big play from anywhere on the field. Containing Cook is no easy task, but Ole Miss ranked fourth in the SEC last season against the run and returns a strong foundation in the trenches. Tackles D.J. Jones and Breeland Speaks have All-SEC potential this year, while end Marquis Haynes (10 sacks in 2015) is already one of the best in the league at his position. The other end spot is a question mark with Fadol Brown nursing a foot injury, but the senior is expected to play on Monday night. While the Rebels are going to give up some yards to Cook, the defense can’t allow the junior to produce big plays. Essentially, Ole Miss has to make sure Cook doesn’t take a two-yard run and turn it into a 45-yard score. Winning the battle at the point of attack is critical to stopping Cook, and there’s some uncertainty surrounding the status of Florida State center Alec Eberle due to migraines. The Seminoles’ offensive line is expected to improve with four returning starters, but this unit was inconsistent in 2015. Will Cook find running lanes early and break a couple of big plays in the second half? Or will the Rebels win the battle at the point of attack, forcing the offense to run through redshirt freshman quarterback Deondre Francois in his first start?
2. Chad Kelly vs. Florida State’s Secondary
Even though Florida State lost standout cornerback Jalen Ramsey to the NFL, this unit is one of the best defensive backfields in the nation. The headliner for coordinator Charles Kelly is Derwin James, but cornerback Marquez White is quietly one of the best in the nation at his position, and the Seminoles have recruited a handful of cornerbacks with good size and athleticism. James will line up at safety, but his versatility allows Kelly to use him in a variety of roles. This unit is matched against an Ole Miss receiving corps replacing top target Laquon Treadwell but returns four other players with at least 30 receptions in 2015. Tight end Evan Engram is one of the best in the SEC and grabbed 38 receptions in 13 games last fall. On the outside, Quincy Adeboyejo (38 catches) and Damore’ea Stringfellow (36 receptions) are back as proven weapons, with Markell Pack and Van Jefferson lining up in the slot. While Treadwell will be missed, the Rebels aren’t hurting for weapons or talent in the receiving corps. The one-on-one matchups between the defensive backs and receivers in this game are worth watching, but Florida State will try to disrupt Kelly’s timing on the line of scrimmage. The Rebels have three new starters on the offensive line, which is a concern against a Florida State defensive line that features standout ends DeMarcus Walker and Josh Sweat, as well as tackle Derrick Nnadi.
3. Florida State QB Deondre Francois
Florida State redshirt freshman quarterback Deondre Francois won’t have the luxury of a transition period or a FCS opponent for the first game as the starter. Instead, Francois is being tossed into the fire against a solid Ole Miss defense. Francois was regarded as a four-star recruit coming out of high school and staked his claim to the starting job this offseason while Sean Maguire was healing from a foot injury suffered in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Maguire and Everett Golson had their share of ups and downs last year, and it’s safe to assume a Jimbo Fisher-coached offense won’t go through another season with questionable play by its quarterbacks. There’s no doubt Francois has the talent and playmaking ability to be one of the ACC’s best quarterbacks by the end of 2016. However, how will he perform in his first game under center? Can the Rebels force an early mistake or two to rattle the redshirt freshman? Additionally, in order to help Francois’ ease his way into the starting lineup, Florida State’s receivers have to play with more consistency than this group did in 2015. Francois should expect some different looks from Ole Miss defensive coordinator Dave Wommack, and it’s up to Fisher to give the young quarterback some easy throws (and plenty of help from Dalvin Cook) to keep the chains moving early in this one. The matchup of Francois against a good Ole Miss defense is one of the most intriguing matchups from the first week of the season.
Week 1 has plenty of high-profile matchups, but this game has the potential to be best of the bunch. Florida State has national title aspirations and a win over Ole Miss is an opportunity to make an early statement. For the Rebels, this game is a chance for Freeze to show this program has plenty of staying power and won’t miss a beat after losing three first-round picks to the NFL. As it is with any matchup, quarterback play will be under the microscope. However, there’s extra interest in Orlando, as Deondre Francois makes his first start for the Seminoles, while Kelly goes against one of the nation’s top defensive backfields. Ole Miss doesn’t have a traditional grind-it-out ground game, but Kelly can use short passes to keep the down and distance in manageable situations. And when the Seminoles have the ball, which team wins the battle at the point of attack? Will Cook and the Florida State offensive line impose its will against the Rebels? Or will the Rebels limit Cook and put the pressure on Francois? The guess here is Cook and Francois find just enough room on offense, while the defense keeps Kelly in check in the second half to propel the Seminoles to a victory.