Through the first three weeks of the 2016 college football season, Ole Miss had a chance to launch itself to the forefront of the national title discussion. After bungling this opportunity, the Rebels sit at 1-2 and in danger of falling out of the polls as they welcome the Georgia Bulldogs to Oxford for a must-win week four matchup.
Ole Miss arrives at this crucial moment in its young season as a team that has suffered from an appalling lack of poise. In top-five showdowns against Florida State and Alabama, the Rebels have looked near unstoppable while jumping out to three-touchdown leads in the first half. On both occasions, they crumbled down the stretch.
The silvering lining for Ole Miss lies in knowing that, in all likelihood, it has faced its toughest two tests of 2016. With nearly its entire conference schedule ahead, the door remains ajar for a late-season College Football Playoff push. Accomplishing such a feat would require a flawless finish for the Rebels — a quest that begins on Saturday against a quality opponent that has yet to lose this season.
Georgia enters this weekend at 3-0, a top contender to represent the SEC East in Atlanta for the conference title game. However, 2016 has not been all roses for first-year head coach Kirby Smart. The Bulldogs have received upset scares from each of their three opponents, including Nicholls State of the FCS and projected SEC bottom-feeder Missouri. Even more worrisome for Smart’s squad: It faces what is by far the most talented opponent it has seen this season.
Ole Miss is led by senior quarterback Chad Kelly, who has built off an impressive junior campaign and is on pace to contend for first team All-SEC honors. Kelly is not without his faults, though. The 6-foot-2, 224-pound gunslinger has committed five second-half turnovers this season, with all five occurring during key moments of his team’s two losses. Atrocious offensive line play shoulders a large portion of the blame — Kelly has been sacked eight times this season, tied with Kentucky’s Drew Barker for the most in the SEC — but poor pocket awareness by the quarterback is a culprit as well.
Defensively, the Rebels will attempt to contain one of the nation’s elite rushers, Nick Chubb. The porous Ole Miss run defense ranks 115th in the country with 242.7 yards allowed per game. It should be in for a long day, although a glimmer of hope does arise from the fact that Georgia has not had a player top the 100-yard rushing mark since its season opener.
Matchup to watch: Chad Kelly vs. the Georgia secondary
The Ole Miss offense lives and dies on its passing game. This weekend, Chad Kelly and company host a Georgia pass defense that ranked among the best in the country last year.
The Bulldogs have left much to be desired with narrow victories over North Carolina, Nicholls State and Missouri to start their season, and secondary play appears to have fallen off from its 2015 form. Georgia displayed a troubling tendency to give up large gains through the air last week against Missouri — something that could tilt the odds heavily in favor of Ole Miss. The Bulldogs allowed 376 passing yards on the day, 185 of which came on four completions of 25 yards or more.
It should be noted, however, that Georgia enjoyed a game-saving defensive turnaround in the second half, forcing three interceptions and holding Missouri quarterback Drew Lock to only 54 passing yards in the final two quarters after a 322-yard first-half outburst. This could spell trouble for the Rebels, who have been embarrassingly bad after halftime this season.
This matchup has the potential to be one of the more entertaining games in the SEC this season, and could be the tipping point in either team’s hunt for a division title. Ole Miss will effectively crush any lofty postseason aspirations it has with a loss, while a victory for the Bulldogs would give them a 2-0 start in conference play as they prepare for a possible de-facto SEC East title game next week against Tennessee.
With the high-powered nature of the Rebels’ offense, as well as their notable defensive struggles, this game has the makings of a shootout. At quarterback, Georgia will trot out true freshman Jacob Eason, who has been impressive through the first three games of his collegiate career, but has yet to face an imposing defensive front like that of Ole Miss. In what should be a high-scoring affair, Kelly’s experience gives the Rebels a vital edge.
Final Score: Ole Miss 34, Georgia 31