In a roller coaster of a season opener on Monday night, the Ole Miss Rebels went from on the cusp of emerging as a top national title contender to falling apart and surrendering a historic comeback in a matter of minutes.
Leading 28-6 late in the second quarter, No. 11 Ole Miss appeared en route to a blowout victory against No. 4 Florida State in front of a Seminole-heavy crowd at the Camping World Kickoff in Orlando. Senior quarterback Chad Kelly had found his groove, completing 14 of his first 17 passes of the evening. Even a Rebels defensive unit that generated considerable uncertainty heading into the season was flying to the football with a newfound aggression. Ole Miss was forcing a supposedly electric Florida State offense into an array of mental mistakes.
Unfortunately for the Rebels, the young Seminoles came back swinging like a team that returned all 11 offensive starters from last year.
Led by redshirt freshman Deondre Francois, who stepped into the starting quarterback role with senior Sean Maguire recovering from a broken foot, Florida State proceeded to score 33 unanswered points. The Seminoles needed only 11 minutes and 16 seconds to erase their 22-point first-half deficit, in what is now the largest comeback in school history.
In the midst of this colossal meltdown, the Rebels unveiled to opponents their greatest weakness — an over-reliance on a fast-paced style of play.
Several shortcomings cost Ole Miss, but nothing hurt more than having its up-tempo offense essentially slowed to a halt. Florida State placed an emphasis on pressuring Kelly as the game progressed, which in turn led to an overwhelmed offensive line, mistakes from the quarterback, and a noticeably slower pace of play. Kelly committed three turnovers in the second half and completed only seven of his final 22 passes, a complete reversal from his 14-of-17 start.
The energy from this high-powered, no-huddle attack had been sapped, and it became apparent that when the game slowed down, the Rebels were completely lost. This momentum shift translated to the other side of the ball as well. Once the Seminoles got rolling offensively, the Ole Miss defense that did not allow a touchdown until the final minute of the first half began to fall apart at the seams.
Undermanned after losing starting cornerback Ken Webster to a brutal leg injury in the first quarter, the Rebels’ secondary was put on blast during a 419-yard passing night by Francois — the second-most prolific passing performance ever by a Florida State freshman. A tendency to give up big plays was another major issue for the defense. The unit allowed six different Seminoles to record gains of at least 24 yards yards from scrimmage.
Losing in the fashion that Ole Miss did is as crushing a start to the season as one can imagine. It does not have to be the start of a downward spiral, though.
For head coach Hugh Freeze, the benefit of playing one of college football’s elites during week one is that it provides him a proper perspective of where his team stands before conference play begins. With the likes of Alabama, Georgia and LSU still on the schedule, as well as a potential SEC Championship Game appearance, the Rebels have ample opportunity to climb into the College Football Playoff race.
With a showdown against top-ranked Alabama looming next Saturday, Ole Miss has significant strides to take — and little time to do so.