After three weeks of the ACC the SEC takes center stage on Thursday night when #4 AP/5 Coaches Ole Miss (2-0) visits Columbia to take on South Carolina (2-1, 0-1 SEC) (7:30 PM on ESPN). Houston Nutt's Rebels haven't been tested thus far in blowouts of Memphis and Southeast Louisiana, two teams that had no answers from QB Jevan Snead and company. But that's a good thing for the Rebels, who had to deal with a flu bug that's run rampant through the locker room in recent weeks. Look for Ole Miss to be more than ready for this challenge.
"You are ready to play a game like this; it is going to be a great atmosphere," noted Coach Nutt earlier this week. "Our guys are looking forward to it. I know as coaches, we are. I think our players are even more so." The area in which the Rebels will need to improve is special teams (they rank 105th in net punting), and that phase of the game becomes even more important with much tougher opponents to deal with. Ole Miss hasn't won an SEC opener since 2003, and the Gamecocks won last season's meeting by the final score of 31-24.
South Carolina has looked much better on offense since their pedestrian performance at NC State (a 7-3 win), scoring 37 in a loss to Georgia and following that up with 38 points in their win over Florida Atlantic. QB Stephen Garcia has completed 62.7% of his passes this season, and his improvement as a signal caller is key for South Carolina with the graduation of top receivers Kenny McKinley and TE Jared Cook. Despite their struggles at Georgia the defense has been solid, ranking 15th nationally in total defense. To say the least Jevan Snead and company haven't seen a unit like this in 2009.
LB Eric Norwood is the SEC's best linebacker, but the secondary is young. If Dexter McCluster and company can take advantage of that youth Ole Miss make some big plays through the air. This will be a close affair but the Rebels will have enough to pull out a close road victory.
Friday: #21 Missouri (3-0) @ Nevada (0-2) 9 PM on ESPN
Chris Ault's team hasn't looked good at all in losses to Notre Dame and Colorado State; Friday night provides another shot at a solid opponent. Luckily for the Wolf Pack the game is in Reno, and that should mean a better showing from QB Colin Kaepernick and company. Nevada is a minus-8 in turnover margin through two games and the defense has yet to force a turnover. They're dead last nationally in turnover margin, 107th in total defense and 110th in scoring defense. In fact the only defensive category in which they don't rank in the triple digits is rushing defense...they rank 99th in that category.
They're going to have their hands full with a Missouri offense that has adjusted thus far to the many personnel losses. The Tigers rank 26th nationally in total offense and 20th in scoring offense, with sophomore QB Blaine Gabbert (68.1% comp., 8 passing TDs, 0 INT) ranking eleventh nationally (and first in the Big 12) in pass efficiency. Derrick Washington and Kendial Lawrence have done a good job in the running game, and receivers Danario Alexander and Jared Perry have gotten the job done in the passing game. It's not every day that you have to replace players the caliber of Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin and Chase Coffman but head coach Gary Pinkel has found the formula through three games.
The question for Missouri will be how they defend a player the caliber of Kaepernick. They held him in check in last year's 69-17 beating in Columbia, highlighting just how important he is to the Nevada attack. RB Vai Taua and WRs Brandon Wimberly and Tray Session must step up and make plays if the Wolf Pack are to entertain any thoughts of the upset. Nevada plays better than they did in their first two games but it won't be enough; Missouri wins a game that plays out closer than many expect it to.