ATLANTA — It wasn’t pretty, but No. 18 Ole Miss’s season got off to a positive start with a 35-13 win over Boise State in the first Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game of the season. Here are three quick thoughts on the Rebels’ victory.
Avert your eyes!
College football can be beautiful thing, but what took place at the Georgia Dome on Thursday was hard to watch. Riddled with turnovers and penalties, Thursday's game should’ve been deemed inappropriate for basic cable.
Ole Miss and Boise State combined for seven turnovers and 23 penalties on Thursday. No two teams had ever combined for more than four interceptions in a Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game, but Bo Wallace and Grant Hedrick surpassed that mark with seven total picks — six by halftime. The teams also combined to go 10-of-28 on third downs, so fans of punters went home satisfied.
Perhaps both rosters needed to shake off a little rust from the offseason.These two coaches better hope this matchup did the trick, because Ole Miss and Boise State both need to tidy up. The Broncos want to show that last season’s lackluster campaign was an anomaly. The Rebels, meanwhile, are looking to shock the SEC as a contender in the daunting west division. Both programs have some work to do if they hope to reach their goals.
Not enough from Bo Wallace
At SEC Media Days in July, Wallace told reporters he wasn’t happy with being voted behind two other quarterbacks on the media’s All-SEC team. Auburn’s Nick Marshall and Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott received more votes than Wallace despite the Rebels’ senior returning at the league’s most productive passer.
Unfortunately for Wallace, he didn't do enough to cement himself as an elite SEC quarterback on Thursday.
Don’t be fooled by the Ole Miss passer’s seemingly impressive stat line. He finished 25-of-36 passing for 387 yards and four touchdowns. But Wallace still made the kind of ghastly mistakes that have defined his career in Oxford. He tossed three interceptions, all in the first half, and he struggled to keep the chains moving for four quarters. Wallace woke up just in time to toss three fourth-quarter touchdown passes, which put the game out of reach for Boise State. Still, the Rebels shouldn’t have been forced to squeak out this win. There’s too much talent on this offense, from young wideout Laquon Treadwell to seasoned tailbacks I’Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton.
The Rebels are a trendy pick as a surprise team in the SEC West, and it’s easy to see why — on paper, at least. They return 15 starters from a team with a talented offense and a proven defense. But much of Ole Miss’s potential lies in the hands of Wallace, whose skill is often overshadowed by his own mistakes. There’s reason to like the Rebels for their defense, which includes a number of big-time players like All-American safety Cody Prewitt and defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, both of whom made impact plays on Thursday. But Ole Miss could only go as far as Wallace and the offense take it. Red-zone troubles and ill-timed miscues from Wallace left too many opportunities on the field for Ole Miss last season. That’s something this offense can’t afford for the program to take the next step.
If Wallace can’t keep his decision-making in check and take advantage of the offensive weapons at his disposal, the Rebels won’t be as lucky as they were on Thursday. The quarterback known as “Dr. Bo” will need steadier hands in the gridiron operating room for Ole Miss to succeed. That’s especially true against a more challenging SEC schedule on the horizon.
Boise State bounce-back?
Boise State was the original BCS-buster, but the 2013 season did not feature the Broncos at their best. Chris Petersen left to take the Washington job after leading Boise State to the team's worst regular season (8-4) since 1998. Now under the direction of former Boise assistant Bryan Harsin, the Broncos' goal in 2014 has been to return to glory in the Mountain West.
The trouble is, the Mountain West won't be Boise State’s stomping grounds this season. Programs like Utah State, Fresno State and San Diego State, teams that the Broncos used to dominate, are now nipping at their heels. A marquee win over a rising SEC team would’ve been a nice step, but Boise State isn’t there yet.
Even though Boise State imploded in the fourth quarter on Thursday, all was not lost for the Broncos. Boise State, like Ole Miss, could’ve taken control of the game early if not for a series of miscues. Hedrick tossed four interceptions and regularly explosive running back Jay Ajayi managed only 88 rushing yards (4.4 yards per carry) on the night. This all came against a seasoned Ole Miss defense that many expect to be one of the country’s best by season’s end.
Harsin’s focus shouldn’t be on what his program lost on Thursday. Instead, the Broncos should focus on the Mountain West slate that lies ahead. Hedrick is an experienced passer who saw plenty of big-time moments last season. Ajayi could continue to develop as the conference’s most underrated offensive threat. Perhaps most encouraging, the Boise defense forced three Ole Miss turnovers and kept the Rebels' offense on its toes for three quarters. It could stay hungry against league competition.
Folks in Boise were pretty excited to have a familiar face returning in Harsin, who served on the Broncos’ staff for 10 seasons (2001-2010) as an assistant. This might take some time to get fixed, but using Thursday’s game as a learning opportunity — and an example of this roster’s potential -- would be smart for Harsin.