Indiana and Ole Miss meet for the first time on the gridiron in the Outback Bowl this Saturday in Tampa, Florida. The Hoosiers were one of the biggest surprises of the 2020 college football season and just missed out on a trip to a New Year’s Six bowl. On the other sideline, the Rebels showed improvement under first-year coach Lane Kiffin by finishing 4-5 and hope to use the postseason trip to build momentum for 2021. The matchup of Indiana’s defense against the high-powered Ole Miss offense should make for one of the better bowl games outside of the New Year’s Six.
Tom Allen should be near the top of the list for national coach of the year honors this season. Indiana finished the regular season with a 6-1 mark and ranked as the Big Ten’s No. 2 team behind Ohio State in the final CFB Playoff top 25. The Hoosiers opened with an overtime win over Penn State (36-35) and knocked off Rutgers, Michigan and Michigan State (each by 16 points or more) before falling to Ohio State 42-35 in Columbus. Allen’s team finished the year on a high note, defeating Maryland 27-11 and overcoming the season-ending injury to quarterback Michael Penix Jr. to beat Wisconsin 14-6 on Dec. 5.
Ole Miss didn’t lack for intrigue in Lane Kiffin’s debut in Oxford. The Rebels put scares into both Florida (51-35) and Alabama (63-48) and suffered two defeats (LSU and Auburn) by seven points or less. Scoring points certainly wasn’t a problem for Kiffin’s squad, but the defense has to get a lot better for Ole Miss to challenge for a finish near the top of the SEC West. The Rebels showed improvement from 2019 to ’20 and the pieces are in place to take another step forward in ’21.
In addition to the first time meeting on the gridiron, both Indiana and Ole Miss have never played in the Outback Bowl until the 2020 season. The Hoosiers are 3-9 in all-time bowl appearances, while the Rebels are 24-13. Indiana has lost its last five bowl games, with the last victory coming in the 1991 Copper Bowl.
Outback Bowl: Ole Miss vs. Indiana
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 2 at 12:30 p.m. ET
Where: Raymond James Stadium (Tampa, Fla.)
Spread: Indiana -8
When Ole Miss Has the Ball
Offense was the unquestioned strength of Ole Miss in the 2020 season. Kiffin and coordinator Jeff Lebby piloted the offense to an average of 40.7 points a game and 7.1 yards per play. Both of those totals ranked near the top of the SEC, and this offense tied for the conference lead in plays of 50 yards or more (11).
Quarterback Matt Corral is the catalyst for this offense after beating out John Rhys Plumlee for the starting nod in fall practice. Corral started all nine games for Kiffin, throwing for 2,995 yards and 27 touchdowns. He also completed 71.3 percent of his passes and ranked second on the team with 469 yards and four scores. Corral tied with Alabama’s Mac Jones for the SEC lead in completions of 40-plus yards (15) but also had a little boom-or-bust element to his game. The sophomore tossed 11 of his 14 interceptions in two games (LSU and Arkansas) and his completion dipped to 62.3 in losses compared to 81.7 in wins.
Corral’s supporting cast was strong all year but took a few hits due to opt outs prior to the LSU game. Elijah Moore (86 catches for 1,193 yards and eight scores) and tight end Kenny Yeboah (27 rec.) opted to begin prep for the NFL draft prior to the finale against LSU. The cupboard isn’t bare, as Braylon Sanders (26.4 ypc), Jonathan Mingo (24 rec.), and Dontario Drummond (19) form a capable trio on the outside. Running backs Jerrion Ealy (745 rushing yards) and Snoop Conner (378) form a potent combo on the ground, with both players chipping in as a receiver. Sanders and Ealy were both banged up in the loss to LSU and their status is uncertain for Saturday’s game. Corral’s mobility is a huge asset for this offense, but the pass protection has been solid all year with only 17 sacks allowed.
Ole Miss is likely the second-best offense Indiana has faced in 2020. With coordinator Kane Wommack and Allen directing this unit, only two of the seven opponents played scored more than 22 points. Indiana gave up 5.4 yards per play and held teams to 19.4 points a game allowed in 2020. This defense didn’t give up much in the way of big plays, excelled at getting stops on third down and in the red zone, while also leading the Big Ten in turnovers forced (20). Also, the Hoosiers paced the conference in sacks (23). Considering the firepower on the Ole Miss sideline, a complete shutdown of this offense is unlikely. However, if Indiana would be happy to trade yards for stops in the red zone and score a couple of timely wins in key situations (third downs and red zone).
When Indiana Has the Ball
Indiana’s offense suffered a massive setback when quarterback Michael Penix Jr. suffered a season-ending injury against Maryland on Nov. 28. The Hoosiers scored only 14 points in their next game against Wisconsin but that was more than enough to score the win. First-year coordinator Nick Sheridan has guided the offense to an average of 5.2 yards per play and just over 30 points a game (30.1). Indiana hasn’t played since that win in Madison and having nearly a month to practice between games should give Jack Tuttle a chance to get better acclimated to the starting role.
Tuttle — a transfer from Utah — played well in Indiana’s win over Wisconsin. On 13 completions, Tuttle threw for 130 yards and two scores and didn’t throw an interception. Penix was more dynamic through the air (1,645 yards and 14 scores) and on the ground, but Tuttle is more than capable of keeping this unit performing at a high level. Just getting the ball to playmakers in space with no mistakes would be a winning formula for Tuttle. The Hoosiers have a couple of standouts at receiver, including Ty Fryfogle (34 catches), Whop Philyor (36), and Miles Marshall (17) to go with tight end Peyton Hendershot (23). Those four players figure to be a handful for Ole Miss after this defense ranked 11th in the SEC in pass efficiency defense and allowed quarterbacks to complete nearly 70 percent (69.3) of their passes.
In addition to their struggles stopping the pass, Ole Miss also ranked last in the SEC against the run by giving up a whopping 211.2 yards a game. For the season, the Rebels ranked last in the conference in points allowed (40.3) and near the bottom in yards per play allowed (7.0). This unit gave up too many big plays, struggled to create takeaways, and didn’t get off the field on third downs. Defending the pass isn’t going to be the only challenge in Tampa. Stevie Scott — a 231-pound battering ram — pounded defenses for 462 rushing yards in the regular season and will be a handful for the Ole Miss front seven.
There’s always a question about motivation in any bowl game, but that shouldn’t be an issue here. This is the first bowl game for Ole Miss since 2015, and Indiana is hungry to end a good season on a high note and put a stop to a postseason losing streak. COVID-19 issues are reportedly a concern for the Rebels, so the roster could be thin on Saturday afternoon on top of several players already opting out. But even with a thin roster and a high-powered offense, Kiffin’s defense still has to find a way to get a couple of stops — something that was a major problem in the regular season. Tuttle should be more comfortable in his second start for Indiana, with the receivers and Scott likely to give the Rebels a lot of problems. A tight game is anticipated, but the team with the better defense (Indiana) should come out on top.