The Tigers and Rebels meet on Saturday night in Baton Rouge.
Interim coach Ed Orgeron looks to build momentum for keeping the full-time job at LSU, as the Tigers host Ole Miss in a critical game for positioning within the SEC West on Saturday night. The Rebels won last year’s meeting in convincing fashion (38-17), but the three previous matchups in this series were decided by six points or less. Considering the rivalry aspect, recent history and what’s at stake, another tight contest is expected in Death Valley on Saturday night.
Orgeron is 2-0 since taking over for Les Miles, who was dismissed after an 18-13 loss at Auburn on Sept. 24. There’s still a long ways to go this season, but Orgeron is making the best possible case for LSU to keep him on a full-time basis. While Orgeron was dismissed at Ole Miss after a 10-25 record from 2005-07, he’s not the same coach that roamed the sidelines in Oxford. He went 6-2 as an interim coach at USC in 2013 and promised changes to spark LSU’s offense after Miles was fired. So far, the results are in Orgeron’s favor. The Tigers scored 42 points against Missouri and 45 against Southern Miss. The competition will get tougher, but the players have rallied around Orgeron and this is still a team with a lot of talent despite its 4-2 start. And whether it’s mentioned a lot this week or not, there’s certainly a revenge factor in play for Orgeron taking on his former employer.
At 3-3, Ole Miss is drawing plenty of curious looks in the top 25 poll each week. However, the Rebels are certainly one of the top 25 teams in the nation, but this program has played a brutal schedule so far. Ole Miss lost by 11 in the opener to Florida State, gave Alabama all it could handle before losing 48-43 and lost 34-30 at Arkansas. Even though coach Hugh Freeze’s team is 1-2 in SEC play, there’s a lot at stake. With games remaining against LSU, Auburn and Texas A&M, Ole Miss has a shot to play its way into New Year’s Six Bowl consideration once again.
LSU holds a 59-41-4 series edge over Ole Miss. The Tigers also hold a 39-24-1 advantage in this series in games played in Baton Rouge.
Ole Miss at LSU
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 22 at 9 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: LSU -5.5
Three Things to Watch
1. LSU’s Ground Attack
After surrendering 200 yards on the ground to Arkansas last week, Ole Miss ranks 12th in the SEC in rush defense. That’s bad news for the Rebels with a matchup against LSU’s rushing attack and an offensive line that’s starting to get healthy after a couple of weeks of battling injuries. Leonard Fournette has been relatively quiet (386 yards) but has missed three games due to an ankle injury. Fournette is slated to return this week and is expected to share carries with Derrius Guice (9.1 ypc). Even though Orgeron promised to spice up the LSU attack, the success for this unit still starts on the ground. With Ole Miss struggling to stop the run and dealing with concerns at the linebacker position, expect the Tigers to test this front once again on Saturday night. If Fournette and Guice have an easy time finding yardage, that should allow the offense to utilize play action and quarterback Danny Etling can take a few shots downfield. Needless to say, Ole Miss has to be tougher in the trenches and stop the run better than it did last week.
2. Ole Miss QB Chad Kelly Against LSU’s Secondary
This is strength versus strength and one of the top individual matchups to watch on Saturday. Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly has been one of the SEC’s top signal-callers this season, throwing for 1,849 yards and 14 scores and completing 62.4 percent of his throws. Additionally, Kelly ranks second on the team with 213 rushing yards and has added three scores on the ground. In last year’s game, Kelly got the upper hand against LSU. He threw for 280 yards on 19 completions and tossed two scores in a 38-17 victory. The going could be a little tougher this time around, as LSU’s secondary ranks fifth in the SEC in pass efficiency defense and has allowed only three passing scores all year. Cornerback Tre’Davious White and safety Jamal Adams are two of the nation’s top defensive backs and will be tough matchup for a deep and talented Ole Miss receiving corps. Tight end Evan Engram (37 catches) is the preferred target for Kelly, but Damore’ea Stringfellow (22 grabs), Van Jefferson (22) and Quincy Adeboyejo are other valuable weapons.
Ole Miss doesn’t have a traditional ground attack, so the offense relies heavily on Kelly’s arm and mobility to keep the chains moving. Pass protection is also a vital cog in this battle. Arkansas effectively utilized pressure and blitzes during the second half of last week’s win over the Rebels, which limited Kelly to just five completions over the final two quarters. The Tigers rank fourth in the SEC with 18 generated sacks and have allowed only two plays of more than 40 yards in 2016.
For Ole Miss to win in Baton Rouge, Kelly has to have a huge night. However, against a stingy secondary and a pass rush that’s poised to bring pressure, the senior quarterback is going to have his hands full.
3. LSU QB Danny Etling
As mentioned previously in this preview, Orgeron promised to open up LSU’s offense after his promotion to the top spot. The Tigers have scored 87 points over the last two games, with Etling posting 216 yards against Missouri and 276 yards against Southern Miss. Those totals may not seem like much, but Etling has also connected on four plays of 40 yards or more and new play-caller Steve Ensminger is willing to utilize more variations in formations. The Tigers don’t need to throw 45 times to win, but Ensminger is willing to let Etling take a few shots downfield. Receiver Malachi Dupre (13.1 ypc), D.J. Chark (17.2 ypc) and Travin Dural (20 catches) are all capable of producing big plays downfield. Ole Miss has faced its share of good quarterbacks and receivers this year, but the Rebels are struggling to contain the pass (eighth in the SEC in pass efficiency defense). Even if Etling posts marginal stats on Saturday, he needs to test this secondary with a couple of deep passes. However, most importantly, Etling has to continue doing a good job of protecting the ball (just two interceptions on 119 attempts).
The recent trends in this series suggest a close game is in order on Saturday night. However, Ole Miss has not won in Baton Rouge since 2008 and is facing a LSU team riding a wave of momentum and new energy since Orgeron was promoted to the top spot. The Rebels need a big game from Kelly and have to find a way to slow down the Tiger rushing attack. Winning first down could be critical on both sides of the ball for Ole Miss. Keeping the third-and-short situations helps an offense that doesn’t have a traditional or particularly dynamic ground attack, while the defense needs to put LSU’s offense into third-and-long situations. Stopping Fournette and Guice proves to be too much of a challenge, but Kelly keeps Ole Miss in this one deep into the fourth quarter. A late touchdown is the difference for LSU as it moves to 3-0 under Orgeron.