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Ole Miss Rebels vs. California Golden Bears Preview and Prediction

Shea Patterson

Shea Patterson

What better way to distract Ole Miss from its recent NCAA Committee on Infractions hearing than to travel 2,100 miles to Berkeley for a SEC vs. Pac-12 matchup against California? The NCAA won’t determine Ole Miss’ fate for the next six to eight weeks, but life goes on for the Rebels.

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Ole Miss and Cal meet for the first time in history Saturday, and both programs enter the contest with unblemished records.

Ole Miss led FCS member UT Martin by a single point at halftime last Saturday but went on to outscore the Skyhawks 28-7 in the second half, winning 45-23. Quarterback Shea Patterson and wide receiver A.J. Brown led the way, as Patterson threw for a school-record 489 yards and five touchdowns, and Brown totaled 156 receiving yards and two touchdowns.

Likewise, Cal defeated its FCS opponent, Weber State, 35-20 to secure its second win of the year. The Wildcats led 20-17 at halftime, but Bears running back Patrick Laird scored a trio of second-half touchdowns to seal the come-from-behind win. Cal’s defense, however, left much to be desired as it allowed 571 yards to Weber State.

Historically, Cal has gone 4-10 against the SEC. Saturday marks the first time in school history that Ole Miss will play a Pac-12 member. This game also features a pair of first-year head coaches in Ole Miss interim Matt Luke and Cal’s Justin Wilcox, who has some familiarity with the SEC from his stint as Tennessee’s defensive coordinator from 2010-11.

Ole Miss at Cal

Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 16 at 10:30 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ESPN

Spread: Ole Miss -4

Three Things to Watch

1. Cal’s passing defense vs. Shea Patterson

Of the 571 yards Cal surrendered to Weber State last week, Wildcats quarterback Stefan Cantwell was responsible for 431 of them. Cantwell completed 25 of his 41 attempts and had one touchdown pass.

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If Cal defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter hasn’t shored up his unit this week in practice, it could be in for another long night in dealing with Rebels quarterback Shea Patterson. In two games this season, Patterson has missed on just 18 of his 78 pass attempts and has thrown for 918 yards and nine touchdowns.

Cal currently ranks near the bottom of FBS (120th) in pass defense at 326 yards per game. Patterson could be in for another record-setting night.

2. Rebels’ super sophomore A.J. Brown

Patterson isn’t the only Ole Miss player that has already etched his name into the school’s record books this year. Brown pulled in eight catches for a school-record 233 yards and two touchdowns in Week 1 vs. South Alabama. Last week, he followed up with another eight-catch game that netted him 156 yards and two more scores against UT Martin.

Cal gave up 149 yards and a touchdown to Weber State receiver Rashid Shaheed, and at 6-foot-1, 225 pounds, Brown is sure to be another threat to the Bears’ secondary.

Brown, a sophomore, ranks first nationally in receiving yards with 389, and his four touchdown receptions are currently fourth in FBS. With 16 receptions already Brown is just 13 away from tying his total from 2016.

3. Cal running back Patrick Laird vs. Ole Miss’ front seven

Ole Miss’ early offensive dominance has been somewhat tempered by its lackluster play on defense — more specifically, its run defense, which ranks 99th nationally. UT Martin running back Ladarius Galloway exploited Ole Miss’ front seven for 188 yards and a touchdown.

If the Rebels are to win Saturday, they’ll have to stop Cal’s Laird, a walk-on who was awarded a scholarship in August. Laird repaid Cal with a 12-carry, 191-yard effort last week that included three touchdowns. At North Carolina in Week 1, he had a 54-yard touchdown reception.

The Rebels have allowed 389 yards on the ground (194.5 yards per game) against an FCS team (UT Martin) and one from the Sun Belt (South Alabama).

Final Analysis

SEC vs. Pac-12 matchups in the regular season are somewhat rare, so this one has the feel of a bowl game. And Ole Miss just might be viewing it as such given its self-imposed bowl ban. Spotty defensive play by both teams will ensure that there will be no shortage of points, which gives the advantage to the squad with the more dynamic playmakers. Shea Patterson and A.J. Brown will take their aerial show on the road and lead Ole Miss to its third win of the year.

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Prediction: Ole Miss 35, Cal 28

— 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.