Much to the relief of the Ole Miss contingent of fans in Vaught-Hemmingway Stadium, the Rebels played four complete quarters of football last Saturday in their convincing 45-14 win over Georgia. Ole Miss opened the first quarter with a 17-0 lead and built a 31-0 advantage at intermission. The Rebels out-gained the Bulldogs 510-396 in total yards while the defense added three sacks and an interception.
First-year Memphis head coach Mike Norvell has gone 3-0 thus far this season, and his Tigers travel to Ole Miss on the heels of a 77-3 win over Bowling Green. Two weeks ago, Memphis defeated Kansas 43-7, and the Tigers won their season-opener 35-17 over FCS member Southeast Missouri State. Memphis’ defense has given up a total of 27 points while yielding 287 yards per game.
Despite falling behind 14-0 early in last year’s meeting between these two schools, Memphis buckled down and rattled off 31 unanswered points to earn the 37-24 come-from-behind win, which sent shockwaves through the college football world. Although former head coach Justin Fuente is now at Virginia Tech and quarterback Paxton Lynch is in the NFL, Norvell’s Memphis squad is fully capable of pulling off another upset Saturday.
Memphis at Ole Miss
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 1 at 7 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN2/SEC Network alternate
Spread: Ole Miss -14.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Chad Kelly
As goes Kelly, so does Ole Miss. Kelly flourished in his first year in the SEC, throwing for 4,042 yards, 31 touchdowns and 13 interceptions last season. He also was effective on the ground, rushing for 500 yards and 10 more scores. Ole Miss’ standing as a viable College Football Playoff contender was further bolstered when he decided to return to Oxford for his senior season, but inconsistent play this season by Kelly and the team as a whole has likely dashed those hopes following a 2-2 start.
When he’s on, Kelly is arguably one of the nation’s most-talented quarterbacks, as evidenced by his performance against Georgia where he went 20-of-27 for 219 yards and three touchdowns. But it’s been a tale of two halves for Jim Kelly’s nephew. After starting strong against Florida State in the season opener, turnovers contributed to the second half collapse and ensuing loss. Kelly endured more of the same in Ole Miss’ loss to Alabama as the Rebels squandered a 24-3 lead.
2. Memphis’ vaunted defense
While Memphis hasn’t played as grueling of an early-season schedule as Ole Miss, its defense’s ferocity in each of its three games so far warrants attention. Southeast Missouri State scored 17 points against the Tigers in Norvell’s inaugural game as head coach. In the last two games alone, Memphis has outscored the opposition 120-10. That’s a good formula for success.
Memphis’ defensive unit will face its toughest challenge to date as Ole Miss boasts an NFL-caliber offense with playmakers at multiple positions, including Kelly and tight end Evan Engram, whose 327 receiving yards are tops in the FBS at the position. Former Rebel Laquon Treadwell burned Memphis’ secondary for 144 yards and a touchdown last season and while the talented wide receiver is now in the NFL, current wideout Damore'ea Stringfellow possesses some of the same characteristics and will challenge the Tigers’ defensive backs. Stringfellow is averaging 15.1 yards per catch this season.
3. Evan Engram
Much of Ole Miss’ passing success this year can be attributed to the emergence of Engram. Engram saw action in 13 games last season and ended the year with 464 yards and two touchdowns. Having already accumulated 397 yards this season, a 1,000-yard season is certainly not out of the question. Engram grabbed nine receptions for 121 yards and a touchdown in the loss to Florida State and had another nine catches for 138 yards and a score against Alabama. Last week, Engram tallied 95 yards and a touchdown in the win over Georgia.
Engram’s production this season has not only raised the Rebels’ passing game, it’s also helped his draft stock.
After defeating Georgia last week, morale is high in Oxford and Ole Miss will carry momentum from the win into this week’s contest. Memphis has looked impressive in head coach Mike Norvell’s first season but will face a different animal when it travels to SEC country. Too many weapons on both sides of the ball will prove to be the difference as Ole Miss will claim its third win of the season and exact a little payback by the time this one ends in Oxford.
Prediction: Ole Miss 38, Memphis 24
— Written by Elton Hayes, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. A sports reporter for The Meridian Star Newspaper, Hayes also has been an invited guest on “The Paul Finebaum Show.” Follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.