Ole Miss emerged as an SEC championship and national title contender with a 43-37 victory over Alabama in the conference opener, but losses to Florida and Memphis sidelined the Rebels’ College Football Playoff hopes. A heartbreaking overtime loss to Arkansas kept Ole Miss out of the SEC Championship Game, though the Rebels ended the season strong with impressive victories over rivals LSU and Mississippi State.
Oklahoma State opened the 2015 campaign unranked, but rode a 10-0 start to the No. 6 slot in the Playoff rankings before dropping back-to-back Big 12 conference games to Baylor and Oklahoma to dash the Cowboys’ conference and national championship aspirations.
The Rebels are 2-0 against Oklahoma State in bowl games, having beaten the Cowboys in the Cotton Bowl following both the 2003 and '09 seasons. Of course, Ole Miss still has a sour taste in its mouth following last season’s blowout loss in the Peach Bowl. TCU, another Big 12 school, embarrassed the Rebels 42-3.
Allstate Sugar Bowl: Oklahoma State vs. Ole Miss (New Orleans)
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. ET (Friday)
Spread: Ole Miss -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Offensive Firepower Driven by the Passing Game
Both Ole Miss and Oklahoma State have had great offensive success in 2015, particularly in the passing game. Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly led the SEC with 3,740 passing yards, and led the Rebels to 40.3 points per game thanks to an average of 333.7 passing yards per game (10th in FBS). Kelly completed 65.2 percent of his passes for 27 touchdowns and 12 interceptions though he hasn’t thrown a pick in three consecutive games. Top target Laquon Treadwell led the conference with 1,082 receiving yards and 90.2 receiving yards per game while catching 76 passes, including eight touchdowns.
The Cowboys rank No. 7 in the nation with 357.3 passing yards per game behind a two-quarterback system featuring Mason Rudolph and J.W. Walsh. Rudolph led the way as a passer with 3,591 yards, 21 touchdowns and nine interceptions, but is recovering from foot surgery and only attempted three passes in the season-ending loss to Oklahoma (one of which was intercepted). That means Walsh, who threw for 663 yards with 13 TDs and only one interception and added 285 rushing yards and a team-leading 11 scores on the ground during the regular season, is likely to see the majority of the action behind center in New Orleans.
Though Walsh has been used mostly as a runner in 2015, he completed 25 of 42 passes against Oklahoma for 325 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. And, like Kelly, Walsh has a standout wideout. James Washington has 1,077 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns on 52 receptions this season.
2. Oklahoma State’s Free-Falling Defense
The Oklahoma State defense played very well early in the season. In fact, through the Cowboys’ first four games of the season the unit allowed an average of just 299.8 total yards per game and 4.38 yards per play — both of which ranked among the best in the Big 12.
As the competition improved over the course of the season, however, the numbers suffered. Oklahoma State allowed 414.3 total yards per contest and 5.23 yards per snap in the month of October, which was largely inflated by the 642 total yards (6.8 yards per play) amassed by Texas Tech in a 70-53 Cowboys victory on Oct. 31.
Things got much worse in November. After beating TCU 49-29 despite surrendering 663 yards of offense, and surviving Iowa State 35-31, the Cowboys allowed 700 total yards in a 45-35 loss to Baylor. In the Bedlam game, Oklahoma rolled up 524 total yards in a 58-23 blowout. For the month, Oklahoma State allowed an eye-popping 574.5 yards per game and 6.74 yards per play that ballooned the unit’s season averages to 429.5 yards per game (96th nationally) and 5.53 per play (59th).
3. How Will Robert Nkemdiche’s Absence Impact the Ole Miss Defense?
Nkemdiche has long been expected to be a first-round NFL Draft pick and was recently named a second team All-American by the Associated Press after the junior recorded 29 tackles (including seven tackles for a loss) during the regular season.
While his statistics are solid, Nkemdiche’s impact goes much farther than the numbers would indicate. A 6-foot-4, 296-pound defensive tackle that is athletic enough to score three touchdowns on offense as a fullback, Nkemdiche is often double-teamed — and sometimes triple-teamed — by opponents, which allows his teammates opportunities to make plays.
Unfortunately, because he has already declared for the NFL Draft, Nkemdiche’s college career came to an end when he was suspended for the Sugar Bowl following an incident at an Atlanta hotel in December. That means depth will be an issue and other Ole Miss players like Marquis Haynes, who leads the Rebels with 9.5 sacks and 14 tackles for a loss, and All-American Trae Elston, who leads the team with four interceptions (two that were returned for touchdowns) and 12 pass breakups, will receive more attention instead.
The Ole Miss defense is one of the most talented units in the nation, but has fallen short of expectations in 2015 due to injuries and must face Oklahoma State without its best defender. The Rebels allowed an average 387.5 total yards per game during the regular season, which ranks ninth in the SEC, and is nearly 60 yards more than the defense allowed on average in 2014.
Still, the Rebels rank among the top 25 units nationally in interceptions, takeaways and tackles for a loss. Even without Robert Nkemdiche, the Rebels can make life difficult for the Cowboys, especially with quarterback Mason Randolph’s health still in question. Plus, Oklahoma State averages just 132.2 rushing yards per game this year, which ranks No. 109 nationally.
On the other hand, the Rebels have shown growth running the football. Ole Miss averaged 181.1 rushing yards per game this season (No. 51 in the country), but gained 243 yards in the victory over Mississippi State and ran for 222 in the 53-52 loss to Arkansas. With Oklahoma State trending down defensively, a balanced Ole Miss offense should succeed in New Orleans.
Prediction: Ole Miss 38, Oklahoma State 30
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Allen's work on college football can also be found on SaturdayBlitz.com and FanSided.com. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.