This week, we got in touch with Nick Suss of the Clarion Ledger who covers Ole Miss. You can follow him on twitter @nicksuss.
ASOR: Matt Corral has launched himself into Heisman talks. What makes Corral such a dangerous player?
Nick Suss: When Corral is 100% healthy, he can do just about everything on a football field. He’s gone from a talented improviser to a stellar decision-maker. He has the arm talent to throw against zone and the confidence and guile to throw receivers open against man coverage. His legs are an underrated asset; he’s rushed for 10 touchdowns already this season. The big questions are his health and his supporting cast. He’s dealing with a bad ankle and may be without his top three receiving targets this weekend, severely limiting what he can do.
ASOR: What are the team’s strengths?
NS: Offensively, it’s all about tempo and aggressiveness. Ole Miss runs the third-most plays per game in college football, led by a dominant rushing attack averaging the third-most rush yards per game in the FBS. Corral gets most of the attention, but the running backs and offensive line deserve some credit too, as do receivers Braylon Sanders, Jonathan Mingo and Dontario Drummond who are all injured. Defensively everything starts with the pass rush. Sam Williams and Cedric Johnson have been excellent at defensive end and the Rebels average the second-most sacks per game in the SEC. Safeties Jake Springer, Otis Reese and A.J. Finley also make up a talented trio who control the game from the back end.
ASOR: What are the team’s weaknesses?
NS: On offense, it’s all about health. Corral is limited in range of movement. Walk-on Jahcour Pearson is the most reliable healthy receiver. Starting right guard Ben Brown is out for the year and two other starters on the offensive line are playing through injury. Tight end Chase Rogers, the best downhill blocking tight end the Rebels have, is also hurt. This isn’t the same offense that put up 52 points against Arkansas and likely won’t be again this season. On defense, the weakness is stopping the run. Running a 3-2-6 scheme has its perks, but it’s not easy to control a rushing attack, especially not on first downs. Penalties are also a huge concern; no FBS team commits more penalties per game than Ole Miss’ 9.9.
ASOR: What does Ole Miss need to do to secure a win?
NS: It shouldn’t be too hard for Ole Miss to replicate Syracuse’s downhill-run attack that worked against Liberty. Ole Miss doesn’t have one true workhorse like Sean Tucker, but the trio of Snoop Conner, Henry Parrish and Jerrion Ealy can match his production, not to mention Corral if he’s able to test his ankle. Couple that with Liberty allowing the sixth-most sacks in college football going against Ole Miss’ pass rush that ranks No. 12 in the FBS and Ole Miss could win simply on a strength-on-weakness battle.
ASOR: What needs to happen for Liberty pull off the upset road win?
NS: Force Ole Miss to pass the ball to its downtrodden receiving corps. Take advantage of Ole Miss’ weakness against slippery quarterbacks the way Alabama did with Bryce Young and Auburn did with Bo Nix. Throw deep and draw plenty of pass interference calls against the Rebels’ over-aggressive cornerbacks. Run the ball well on first and second down. There are a lot of ways to beat this Ole Miss team, but it’ll take a near-perfect level of execution for Liberty to pull it off.
ASOR: What matchup are you most excited to watch?
NS: Probably the cat-and-mouse game between Willis and Ole Miss’ edge rushers. It’ll be surprising to see the Rebels blitz more than three rushers at a time. So it’ll come down to Williams and Johnson beating blockers on the edge and testing Willis in space. Willis’ escape ability is renowned, but so is the closing speed from Ole Miss’ pass rushers and linebacker spies. If Willis proves tough to bring down and extends plays, he’ll hit big gainers. If the Rebels contain him, I don’t see much of a path for this Liberty offense to thrive.
ASOR: What is the atmosphere like in Oxford ahead of Hugh Freeze’s return to Ole Miss?
NS: Officially inside the athletic department, it’s not really a factor. Among the fans, it’d be surprising to see him be booed or anything like that. The Ole Miss fanbase doesn’t have a vendetta against Freeze. There are plenty of fans who think he was the victim of the NCAA investigation. Some probably would like to see Freeze back at Ole Miss given all of his success in 2014 and 2015. Honestly, I expect his reception to be pretty positive. There’ll be some fans who react negatively to having him back on campus, but I think the overwhelming majority of people in the stadium will either ignore him or look back fondly on the success instead of dwelling on the negative ending.