The Ole Miss Rebels eased into 2015 with a dominant 76-3 victory over UT Martin in Week 1, and will host Fresno State Saturday in the final tune-up ahead of the Sept. 19 SEC opener against Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
While the Rebels looked great last weekend, Fresno should be a much tougher opponent. An annual contender in the Mountain West, the Bulldogs have represented the West in each of the first two conference championship games and have been to bowl games in seven of the last eight seasons.
Fresno State at Ole Miss
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: Ole Miss -29
Three Things to Watch
1. Is the Ole Miss Offense Really This Good?
Ole Miss has been good on offense in recent seasons, but by scoring 76 points and rolling up 662 points in Week 1, there is some evidence that the Rebels could be great offensively in 2015.
Starting quarterback Chad Kelly looked even better than most thought he would. The junior threw for 211 yards, which included 56- and 57-yard touchdown passes, and he also used his legs for a 20-yard score on the ground. Eleven Rebels caught passes from Kelly and backups Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade. On the ground, eight Ole Miss ball carriers combined to gain 338 rushing yards and five TDs on 36 carries (9.4 ypc). And that came without All-SEC left tackle Laremy Tunsil, who sat out against the Skyhawks.
Yes, it’s just one game, and yes, it came against a mediocre FCS opponent, but there were some very encouraging signs.
2. Can Fresno State Move the Football?
Fresno State has a rich history of offensive success, and the Bulldogs have been very potent since Tim DeRuyter took over as head coach prior to the 2012 season. In three full years with offensive coordinator David Schramm calling plays, Fresno has averaged 470.7 yards per game.
However, there was a sharp drop-off in 2014 without Derek Carr at quarterback. The Bulldogs gained just 406 yards per game (and only 314 against FBS non-conference opponents), and only 224 passing yards on average last season, which was a drop of 171 yards per game from 2013 with Carr. Worse, the Bulldogs saw their completion percentage drop from 68.1 percent to 56.4 from 2013 to '14 and sacks rose from 11 to an eye-popping 40 last year.
Last week against Abilene Christian, the Bulldogs had 442 yards, nearly split down the middle with 225 rushing and 217 passing. However, Bulldog quarterbacks completed just 22-of-45 passing attempts and tossed two interceptions.
If Fresno falls behind early, and is forced to go to the air, that spells big trouble. Ole Miss allowed just 290 yards of total offense last week, with 174 coming via the pass and safety Trae Elston intercepted a third quarter pass and returned it 93 yards for a touchdown.
3. What Will Robert Nkemdiche Do Next?
Ole Miss defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche is already widely considered one of the best defensive players in college football. Nkemdiche often excels despite regularly dealing with double and triple teams from opposing offenses in an attempt to neutralize his disruptive presence as both a run stopper and pass rusher. But the 6-foot-4, 298-pound future first-round NFL Draft pick made bigger waves last week with a 31-yard touchdown reception and a blocked field goal.
Because Fresno State struggles passing, it is very likely that the Bulldogs will try to dominate time of possession in the first half with the running game. Expect Marteze Waller, who ran for 1,368 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2014 and had 154 yards on 22 attempts last week, to be featured early and often in an attempt to control the tempo of the game.
However, because Ole Miss has one of the stingiest defenses in the nation, the Bulldogs will have trouble consistently moving the chains. Therefore, as the game wears on and the Rebels wear down their opponent, expect Fresno State to reluctantly resort to its below average passing attack — and the Landsharks will feast in the second half.
Prediction: Ole Miss 38, Fresno State 10
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Allen's work on college football can also be found on SaturdayBlitz.com and FanSided.com. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.