How do you like your football? I hope you say "Offensive." I mean like, Arena League-type of scores? Then this Louisville-Ole Miss showdown could be the ultimate Labor Day game for you.
The two quarterbacks in this one should light up the scoreboard as Matt Corral and Malik Cunningham are two of the best returning field generals in the country. And they’ll be facing a pair of defenses that could be sieve-like again. Last year, the Rebels gave up 30-plus points in seven of their nine regular-season games. Meanwhile, the Cardinals actually had a pretty decent defense (for a 4-7 team, that is) but gave up 27 points per game and never could put together back-to-back solid games.
With this showdown in Atlanta coming on the last day of a five-day college football bonanza, this game might be one of the most entertaining games of Week 1. So enjoy your pigskin-styled piece de resistance.
Louisville vs. Ole Miss
Kickoff: Monday, Sept. 6 at 5 p.m. ET
Where: Mercedes-Benz Stadium (Atlanta)
Spread: Ole Miss -10
When Louisville Has the Ball
First and foremost it is obvious that you have to keep your eyes on quarterback Malik Cunningham, one of the more underappreciated QBs in the country. The strong-armed righty threw for a healthy 2,617 yards and 20 touchdowns a year ago. But he also had 12 picks on the season, raising a small red flag. On top of that, he’ll have a host of new faces to work with this season as the leading rusher and four of their top six receivers from a year ago are now gone, including second-round draftee Tutu Atwell and fourth-rounder Dez Fitzpatrick. But Cunningham is a real dynamo (he also rushed for 609 yards), so as long as the new skill position players have some ability, he will still be lethal.
The ground game averaged 5.2 yards per carry a year ago, but will miss starter Javian Hawkins. Though it should be noted that backup Jalen Mitchell did run for 168 yards in the season finale against Wake Forest last season and averaged 6.7 yards per carry for the year.
Be sure to keep an eye on the Louisville O-line going up against the Rebel D-line. The Cards' forward wall will be one of the strengths of the squad in 2021 and the Rebel front seven has a bunch of new faces. UofL's fortunes for this game rest in the pass protection and forward push department of their hogs up front. Their experience and potential give the Cardinals some hope in this one.
When Ole Miss Has the Ball
Like Cunningham above, the Rebel offensive fortunes all lean on the play of their quarterback. Hyper-athletic Matt Corral is the key to this whole Ole Miss offense. But the big variable is Corral’s turnover leanings. In the 14 games that Corral has started over the past two seasons, they are 7-2 when he doesn’t throw an interception and 0-5 in games when he does. So when you couple that with Cunningham’s 12 picks and three fumbles from a year ago, it’s obvious that the quarterback who controls the turnover margin better will have a very good chance of pulling off the W here.
The big difference is that Corral is surrounded by talented and experienced backs and receivers. Speed merchant Jerrion Ealy is a breakout candidate for All-SEC honors after rushing for 745 yards a year ago. Out wide, Dontario Drummond and Jeremiah Mingo combined for 52 catches a year ago and will be a big test for the Cardinals secondary.
Speaking of the secondary, keep an eye on the UofL cornerbacks, Kei’trel Clark and Chandler Jones. If they can’t keep pace with the Rebel wideouts on a consistent basis, this one could turn into a rout. See how much separation Drummond and Mingo are able to produce on their deep routes. If Clark and Jones can go toe-to-toe, that will be bully for the Cards.
Offensive fireworks aside, Rebel head coach Lane Kiffin knows the rabid fan base will be keeping a keen eye on Ole Miss' defensive improvement, and that’s why going up against a QB like Malik Cunningham is such a dicey proposition. In fact, the Rebels have opened against a Power 5 opponent in only five of the last 25 seasons. A win here means that they will probably go into their showdown in Tuscaloosa on Oct. 8 as an unbeaten team. A loss here means the fans could see this as an ominous sign that another middle-of-the-road finish is ahead.
Even though Kiffin won't be on the sidelines at Mercedes-Benz Stadium after testing positive for a breakthrough case of COVID-19, he can have confidence in his veteran team carrying on without him. Ole Miss returns one of the most experienced rosters in the country with 64 returning lettermen and 17 starters back. Contrast that to the Cardinals, one of the least experienced teams in the ACC. That plus having the better skill-position players and the hint of a better defense gives ole Johnny Reb the edge here.
Prediction: Ole Miss 52, Louisville 41
Podcast: Week 1 Preview, Predictions & Spread Picks
— 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.