College football fans tuning in on Saturday to see the showdown in Oxford between the Texas A&M Aggies (6-4, 3-3 SEC) and the Ole Miss Rebels (5-5, 2-4) are in for a rare SEC treat. In a conference known for tough defenses, the SEC West foes are more likely to produce an old-fashioned, Western Athletic Conference-style shootout where the last team with the ball could be driving for the win.
Texas A&M beating up on New Mexico 55-14 last week in College Station proves very little in the SEC ranks, but the offensive show was impressive. The Aggies were up 48-7 at halftime before backing off the undermanned Lobos. The glimmer of hope was seeing redshirt freshman Nick Starkel make his first start since the opening game against UCLA. Back from an ankle injury, Starkel was throwing darts while completing 21-of-30 passes for 416 yards and four scores without a pick.
The Rebels also stepped outside of conference play last week, securing a two-game win streak with a 50-22 home victory over Louisiana. Ole Miss romped on the Ragin' Cajuns defense for 641 total yards led by junior college quarterback Jordan Ta’amu. Ta’amu has been fantastic in his three starts since sophomore Shea Patterson was lost for the season with a knee injury, giving the Ole Miss fan base a great reason to stay engaged with team through the final three games of the season.
Texas A&M at Ole Miss
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 18 at 7 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: Ole Miss -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Jordan Ta’amu in the Pocket
Shea Patterson has missed the last three games, but the play in the pocket, thanks to Ta’amu, has not suffered. The Hawaii native has thrown for 368 yards or more in each start, including a season-best 418 against Louisiana on 28-of-36 passing with three touchdowns and an interception.
Through the first five games of the season, the Aggies' pass defense was a liability, but all of that has changed. Since facing Alabama on Oct. 7, A&M is holding the opposition to an average of 137 passing yards. New Mexico, a run-oriented offense, managed just 24 yards through the air last week. Ole Miss has to throw the ball if the Rebels want to win.
2. Is Nick Starkel the answer?
Until last week, Texas A&M had produced just one 300-yard passing game this season. Nick Starkel put up 416 against New Mexico. In an odd twist, that 300-yard game earlier this season came against Louisiana. Without a consistent aerial attack, the Aggies have not been able to run the ball. Starkel’s ability to deliver the ball downfield should open running lanes, bringing balance back on offense.
If there ever was a soft SEC landing for Starkel to get back into the groove, it would be against Ole Miss. The Rebels are last in the conference and 117th nationally in total defense at 462.2 yards per game allowed.
3. Which team can run the ball?
Both Ta’amu and Starkel will need some help from their running game, but will they receive it? Running the ball has not been a strong suit for the Rebels this season (130 rushing yards per game). But Texas A&M also has had trouble stopping anyone on the ground. In six SEC games the Aggies are surrendering 197 rushing yards per game.
A&M has just one 100-yard rushing game over the past five as a team, gaining 143 yards against a tough Auburn defense. Ole Miss is one of the defenses in the nation against the run. The Rebels are 125th out of 129 FBS teams at 253.1 rushing yards per game allowed.
The character of Texas A&M’s team will be put to the test on Saturday. Multiple publications, including the Dallas Morning News, have reported Kevin Sumlin will be terminated at the end of the season. Whether the reports are true or not, how will the team respond to the distractions?
Besides watching the quarterbacks spin it, both teams have great talent at wide receiver, which is reason enough for college football fans to tune in on Saturday. Christian Kirk, Damion Ratley and Jhamon Ausbon will benefit greatly with Nick Starkel in the pocket for the Aggies. A.J. Brown is a beast for Ole Miss with Van Jefferson, DaMarkus Lodge and D.K. Metcalf also making life hard on opposing defensive backs. The plays made on the outside will determine the winner.
A&M is known for their November collapses under Sumlin, but something akin to a surprise win seems to be brewing.
Prediction: Texas A&M 48, Ole Miss 38
— 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.