The SEC cross-divisional showdown between the Ole Miss Rebels (3-5, 1-4) and Kentucky Wildcats (6-2, 3-2) on Saturday in Lexington pits two teams going in opposite directions. One squad is coming off a game that it should have won, while the other is coming off a game that could easily have been lost.
Early in the second quarter of Ole Miss' game against Arkansas last week, the Rebels were up 31-7 after quarterback Jordan Ta’amu's eight-yard touchdown run. Ole Miss appeared to be on its way to a blowout win, but Arkansas fought back. The Rebels lost the turnover battle 3-2, the time of possession battle (40:27 vs. 19:33), and they allowed 12-of-19 third-down conversions for the Hogs in a 38–37 loss. Ole Miss heads to Lexington battered and bruised but capable of matching the Wildcats point for point.
After defeating Tennessee for just the third time in 34 years, the Wildcats are pushing towards their best season since 1984, when they posted a 9-3 mark under Jerry Claiborne. Kentucky came from behind in the fourth quarter against the Volunteers, posting the winning score on a Stephen Johnson 11-yard run with 33 seconds left to secure a 29-26 win. The Wildcats lost four fumbles to the Volunteers, but the defense limited the damage to three Tennessee field goals off those turnovers, bailing out the team for an improbable victory.
Ole Miss at Kentucky
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 4 at 4 p.m. ET
TV Channel: SEC Network
Spread: Kentucky -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Kentucky’s defense
The Wildcats defense displayed a “bend but don’t break” mentality against the Volunteers, allowing 445 yards of total offense but clamping down on third downs (6-of-16). Kentucky forced six field-goal attempts with only four put through the uprights. The defense also got after the quarterback, sacking Jarrett Guarantano seven times.
Statistically, Kentucky has the worst pass defense in the SEC, allowing 267 yards per game. This is the matchup within the game that will dictate the outcome.
2. The play of Jordan Ta’amu
By virtually any measure, Ta’amu (above, right) was phenomenal in his first SEC start against the Hogs. The junior college transfer hit 20-of-30 passes for 368 yards and rushed nine times for 76 yards with two trips to the end zone. There was some bad news, though: Ta’amu threw a pick and had a fumble that led to a 22-yard scoop and score.
Kentucky is strong against the run, holding teams to 134 yards per game, while Ole Miss has one of the worse ground games in the nation, producing 123 yards on average. Ole Miss will need Ta’amu to make plays in the pocket.
3. Kentucky’s rushing attack
The Wildcats are a middle-of-the-road offense, producing 154 rushing yards per game. Tailback Benny Snell Jr. is the focal point of the offense entering the Ole Miss game; he's third in the SEC in rushing with 721 yards and nine touchdowns. Snell followed up his worst game of the season against Mississippi State — a seven-carry, 18-yard performance — with his best against the Vols, toting the rock 27 times for season highs in yards (180) and touchdowns (3).
Ole Miss is getting gouged on the ground to the tune of 261 yards per game. Snell could overtake Georgia’s Nick Chubb for the conference lead in rushing yards (765) by the time this one is over.
A win over Ole Miss would be a big step in Kentucky coach Mark Stoops' reconstruction job in Lexington. If Kentucky can avoid turnovers, Stoops' team should be able to put its seventh win of the season on the board.
The last time Ole Miss and Kentucky met, the Wildcats pulled out a 30-13 home win in 2011. Expect more of a shootout this time, but with a similar outcome.
Prediction: Kentucky 38, Ole Miss 33
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.