Saturday's matchup between Liberty and Ole Miss will not lack for storylines or offense.
First and foremost, this will be the first meeting between these football programs, and it doubles as Flames head coach Hugh Freeze's first game against his former team.
Freeze led the Rebels to a 64-39 record with three bowl wins in five seasons (2012-16) before resigning in disgrace over recruiting violations and a pattern of calling an escort service. After two years off, he has turned around Liberty's program with a 25-8 record over the last three seasons.
This game also marks one of the best quarterback matchups all season. Ranked by some as the top two draft prospects at the position, Ole Miss' Matt Corral and Liberty's Malik Willis bring electric playmaking to Vaught Hemingway Stadium.
These signal-callers lead two of the best offenses in the nation, as Ole Miss ranks 12th in scoring offense (39.1 ppg), fourth in total offense (531.5 ypg), 23rd in passing offense (281.6 ypg), and third in rushing offense (249.9 ypg). Liberty is tied for 16th in scoring offense (37.4 ppg) and is 32nd in total offense (445.4 ypg), 41st in passing offense (259.6 ypg), and 42nd in rushing offense (185.9 ypg).
Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin may be right when it comes to this game. Get your popcorn ready.
Liberty at No. 16 Ole Miss
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 6 at 12 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network
Spread: Ole Miss -9.5
When Liberty Has the Ball
The Flames' offense starts and ends with Willis, who leads the team in rushing in addition to passing. Willis paces all FBS quarterbacks with 684 rushing yards and is tied for fifth with nine touchdowns on the ground.
Willis was incredibly efficient to start the season with 11 touchdown passes and no interceptions through the first five games. But he threw three picks in consecutive contests against Middle Tennessee and ULM. That is shocking considering both teams rank in the bottom 50 nationally in pass defense.
Ole Miss also falls in that range (245.4 ypg, 90th) but has faced a much harder strength of schedule than those Group of 5 teams did. And the Rebels do have quite a few playmakers in the secondary, including senior cornerback Keidron Smith (2 INTs) and senior safety Otis Reese (62 tackles).
Avoiding turnovers is always a must, but Liberty should have a solid chance to do so in this likely shootout. Ole Miss has only four interceptions on the year, including one in the last three weeks.
They could go about that by leaning more on the ground game with T.J. Green, Shedro Louis, and potentially Joshua Mack, who did not play last week against UMass for undisclosed reasons. Ole Miss ranks 101st nationally with 184.3 rushing yards allowed per game.
When Ole Miss Has the Ball
When given time, Corral has been one of the most dynamic passers in the FBS. His 160.22 passer efficiency rating sits 17th nationally, and his 9.0 yards per attempt rank 19th. Most impressively, he only has two interceptions all season after tossing 14 in the abbreviated 2020 campaign.
However, Corral has had some trouble when under pressure. This could be Liberty's key. The Flames are tied for ninth nationally with 27 sacks, although it's fair to wonder how much of that has to do with their competition. The only time they've played against a Power 5 team this season, they registered a lone sack in a loss at Syracuse.
Ole Miss' offensive line has been middling this season with 19 sacks allowed (tied for 76th), and it will have to keep an eye out for redshirt freshman defensive lineman Kendy Charles and Aakil Washington plus senior linebackers Storey Jackson and Rashaad Harding.
Keeping Corral upright will be of the utmost importance considering he exited last week's loss to Auburn with an ankle injury, two weeks after suffering a similar injury against Tennessee. Ole Miss has already lost wide receivers Jonathan Mingo, Braylon Sanders, and Dontario Drummond to injuries in recent weeks.
But as talented as Corral is, the strength of this Rebels offense lies in the ground game. Like Willis, Corral leads his team in rushing, but he has an even better complement of weapons in Henry Parrish Jr., Snoop Conner, and Jerrion Ealy. Expect Kiffin to dial up a lot of running plays against a defense that gave up more than 200 yards on the ground each of the last two weeks.
Willis' dark-horse Heisman campaign has been a great story this season, but in many ways, Liberty is playing like Ole Miss-lite. With less talent across the board, it's going to be hard for the Freeze to get revenge to pull an upset in Oxford. That doesn't mean that this game can't be a fun start to Saturday morning's slate, though.
Prediction: Ole Miss 40, Liberty 30
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