Sugar Bowl preview: Ole Miss and Oklahoma State both were in contention for College Football Playoff berths at one point this season, but now they'll face off in an intriguing matchup on New Year's Day.
Ole Miss closed what could have been a special 2014 season with a no-show in the Peach Bowl last year that soured the memory of the entire year. Friday, the Rebels will try to prove the shellacking they took from TCU in Atlanta was an anomaly and not the start of a trend when they face another Big 12 team that had playoff aspirations late in the season but came up short. Oklahoma State, meanwhile, will try to rebound from a November grind that started with an undefeated record and ended with losses to Baylor and Oklahoma. This game may be just for pride, but as Ole Miss can attest after last year’s Peach Bowl, the shame of getting crushed can also be a motivating factor.
Points of Interest
1. Ole Miss defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche
The Rebels will be without their best defender, but it won’t be the first time this season they’ve played without Nkemdiche. Nkemdiche, who is skipping his senior season and entering the NFL draft, was suspended for the game following an incident earlier this month at an Atlanta hotel in which Nkemdiche broke a window, climbed a wall and then fell about 15 feet. Police found marijuana at the scene and charged Nkemdiche with possession. The Rebels played without Nkemdiche in a 23-3 win against Texas A&M on Oct. 24. In that game, redshirt freshman Breeland Speaks replaced Nkemdiche in the starting lineup and the Rebels merely shortened their defensive line rotation. That could result in some tired defensive linemen if the Rebels wind up having to chase J.W. Walsh—the run-first option in the Cowboys’ two-quarterback rotation—around the field.
2. Oklahoma State quarterback J.W. Walsh
How much the Rebels will have to chase Walsh remains a mystery. Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy has remained coy about how he’ll deploy Walsh and fellow quarterback Mason Rudolph. Rudolph played only three snaps in the Cowboys’ 58-23 loss to Oklahoma on Nov. 28. The Tulsa World reported that Rudolph underwent surgery to repair a fracture in his right foot shortly after that game. Gundy said this week that Rudolph would be taking part in team drills, but the coach has kept any details about how he’ll use Rudolph and Walsh to himself. Rudolph has thrown for 3,591 yards with 21 touchdowns and nine interceptions, while Walsh has thrown for 663 yards with 13 touchdowns and one interception and averaged 4.3 yards a carry with 11 rushing touchdowns.
3. Ole Miss's playmakers
The Cowboys struggled against Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, and they’ll face a similarly mobile gunslinger type in Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly. The key difference is that the Rebels don’t have backs to compare to the tandem of Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, who combined to run for 267 yards on 31 carries against Oklahoma State. The Cowboys will have to keep Ole Miss back Jaylen Walton from getting around the edge, but the Rebels probably won’t blow open holes up the middle the way Oklahoma did. Oklahoma State’s biggest concern will be Ole Miss receiver Laquon Treadwell, who will get targeted almost every time Kelly spots him in a one-on-one matchup. Treadwell has recorded 76 catches for 1,082 yards and eight touchdowns this season.
Burning Question: Will Ole Miss show up?
Will Ole Miss show up? Teams obviously change from year to year, but the Rebels looked so awful in last year’s bowl game that it’s a fair question to ask whether a group that features many of the same people will do the same thing. One huge difference is a healthy Treadwell. Last year, the Rebels were still dealing with the fallout from Treadwell’s broken leg, which occurred on a play that started out looking like a game-winning touchdown against Auburn and ended up sending Ole Miss into a spiral. That won’t be an issue this time.
X-Factor: Oklahoma State defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah
Ogbah is one of the nation’s best pass rushers, and he’ll get a chance to test himself against likely first-round pick Laremy Tunsil. If Ogbah, who has recorded 13 sacks this season, can pressure Kelly, he can kill drives or force crippling turnovers.
Oklahoma State is 7-0 in its last seven games decided by a single score. The Cowboys also had three games this year in which they erased a 15-point deficit and won.
If Rudolph can play and the Cowboys can enjoy their regular game of quarterback roulette, it will present a serious challenge to an Ole Miss defense playing without one of the nation’s most dynamic linemen. Nkemdiche changes the way opposing offensive coordinators call games, and his absence might be much more pronounced against the Cowboys than it was against a discombobulated Texas A&M offense. The game may simply come down to which team wants to be there more.