The Tigers don't get to host a Power 5 team very often, especially not for a season opener, so the Liberty Bowl should have some energy to it in this matchup of programs going in opposite directions. The Rebels have hit the skids since 2015's 10-win season, winning just 16 games in the last three years. Meanwhile, the Tigers are on a roll, having posted five straight winning seasons that all ended in a bowl game. The last two years have seen the Tigers make it to the AAC title game, falling to UCF in very close games both times.
But the Rebels should be highly motivated, having spent the last two seasons on probation and not even having the dangling carrot of a bowl game to play for. Head coach Matt Luke has revamped everything with the Rebels for 2019, including hiring new coordinators in Rich Rodriguez and Mike MacIntyre, both former head coaches.
Ole Miss vs. Memphis
Kickoff: Saturday, Aug. 31 at 12 p.m. ET
TV: ABC/Watch ESPN
Spread: Memphis -6
When Ole Miss Has the Ball
With only three returning starters and a new offensive coordinator, don't expect the Rebels to resemble the outfit that has led the SEC in passing yards per game in each of the last three seasons, QB Jordan Ta'amu and his “Nasty WideOuts” have all moved on to pro ball. Look for new offensive coordinator for Rich Rodrguez to employ more of a run-oriented attack, which is good news for Scottie Phillips (928 rushing yards in 2018) and Isaiah Woullard (428 yards).
Strong-armed redshirt freshman Matt Corral possesses a knack for extending plays with his nimble feet. As has been shown in the past, Rodriguez likes mobile, run-pass QBs. He's had Denard Robinson, Khalil Tate and Pat White as part of his past operatives. Look for Corral to benefit from a wide-open offensive attack as this game will act as his springboard to the type of season the Rebs will have.
"Dominating" does not describe the Tiger defense, having given up 447 points in their 14 games last year and ranking ninth in points surrendered in the 12-team AAC. But it will be interesting to see how the Memphis defensive front four handles the Rebels. Two of the returning All-AAC players are defensive end Bryce Huff, who had 19 tackles for a loss last year, and fellow senior, tackle Jonathan Wilson. The Tigers had 37 sacks last year, their most since 1999. Ole Miss is light in the experience department on their O-line, so watch to see how the Tigers' blitz package and run-stoppers do in the first half of this one.
When Memphis Has the Ball
Look for a quick start. The Tigers like these early kickoffs. In the last three years, Memphis is 9-0 in pre-noon starts, averaging 52 points per game in those matchups. They also outscored their opponents 150-93 in the first quarter of games a year ago. But one thing the Tigers would like to break from the 2018 team; wilting down the stretch. In the second half of games, Memphis showed a knack of not being able to close the deal, losing second-half leads to Navy, UCF (twice), and Wake Forest to account for four of their six losses.
This year has all the makings of Patrick Taylor's breakout campaign. Sure that's a little odd to call it a "breakout" considering he ran for 1,122 yards and 16 touchdowns last season. But this year he won't have to share the carries with Doak Walker finalist Darrell Henderson and fellow NFL draft pick Tony Pollard. At 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, head coach Mike Norvell has indicated he would like to see Taylor get 25 carries per game and feels like he has the ability to shoulder that load. The Rebels defense has given up 246, 245 and 222 rushing yards per game the last three seasons, so look for the Tigers to establish the run early and impose their will against Ole Miss' front seven.
Don't sell the Tiger passing game short either as Brady White is coming off a season where he threw for 3,296 yards and 26 touchdowns against just nine interceptions. He will also have the services of his favorite target in Demonte Coxie (72 catches, 1,174 yards), slot receiver John "Pop" Williams (33, 304), along with tight end Joey Magnifico (21, 362).
The Tigers have gone 1-5 in the last three years vs. Power 5 teams, so you know they are looking to buck that trend. And getting a W over the neighboring Rebels will be something these Tiger players will relish for their entire lives. This game will be a great trendsetter for what should be a double-digit win season for Memphis.
Prediction: Memphis 35, Ole Miss 20
— 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.