Florida Gators vs. Ole Miss: Key Matchups That Could Decide the Game

michaelknauff

As the days tick away toward the Gators season opener in Oxford, individual and group position matchups become more of a focal point.

The dichotomy between Florida and Ole Miss’ rosters is quite apparent. For Florida, depth and veteran leadership are widespread across numerous position groups. For Ole Miss, there’s very little depth, sprinkled with some explosive returning playmakers.

Currently, the Gators are anywhere from an 11 to 14 point favorite, and rightly so. What else would one expect when a pick to make the College Football Playoff and the preseason fifth pick in the SEC West, that has a brand new coaching staff, square off?

However, Florida can’t fall into complacency against what is perceived as lesser competition. The Rebels still possess SEC-talent, particularly at the offensive skill positions. Not to mention, there’s no film on this Ole Miss team as Lane Kiffin took over as head coach this offseason. It’s a similar situation the Gators faced against Miami to begin last season when they faced Manny Diaz and the ‘Canes in their first game under his leadership.

“We had the same challenge against Miami last year, new offense and everything,” Marco Wilson said. ”So, you've got to watch another team for their scheme and stuff like that. But you've just got to trust what you're watching on film, and if it turns out that that's not what we see, you've just gotta adjust during the game and just continue to play hard."

Here’s the position and individual matchups to watch for when the Gators take the field at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on Saturday.

1. STAR defender vs. WR Elijah Moore

This will be a fun individual matchup to watch. Moore is one of the best slot receivers in the league, and, according to Pro Football Network, one of the seven best slot receivers in the nation.

Typically, the STAR on defensive coordinator Todd Grantham's defense will match up against the opposing team’s slot. Wilson won’t begin the game at STAR (he’ll more than likely be the field-side corner) but he played in the nickel role late in 2019, and Grantham has said Wilson could see time there against deeper wide receiver groups. This is a game where I can see Wilson being bumped down to STAR in obvious passing situations. 

Currently, C.J. McWilliams is listed at STAR. McWilliams returned this offseason after suffering an injury in 2019. His apparent struggles in 2018 are tied to his weak performance in the game vs Georgia. According to Pro Football Focus, McWilliams allowed three catches on five targets for 69 yards and a touchdown against the Bulldogs in 2018. 

However, his season output doesn't reflect that. His completion percentage allowed in 2018 was only 57.7% across 26 targets, lower than what Wilson's was in 2019. His work ethic, grit and ability to learn quick made him a favorite of Grantham's. Junior tight end Kyle Pitts raved about what McWilliams has done in coverage thus far in camp, and said he's going to prove a lot of people wrong. 

Freshman defensive back Tre’Vez Johnson is impressing in fall camp and is listed as the back-up STAR.

Moore will be a difficult challenge for whoever lines up against him. The junior wide-out caught 67 passes for 850 yards and six touchdowns in a run-heavy offense a year ago. With Kiffin now calling plays, Moore’s targets are all but guaranteed to increase. Moore will likely have redshirt-sophomore Matt Corral throwing passes to him, and this should help the passing game for the Rebels.

Wilson is at his best in man-coverage, and his 68% completion percentage allowed should drop given he’s another year removed from tearing his ACL.

How Wilson fairs against Moore will set a benchmark for where Wilson is projected to end up in the 2021 NFL draft, not to mention it’ll shape how he’s used going forward at STAR for the Gators in 2020.

2. Florida’s pass rush vs Ole Miss’ offensive line

The Florida front four should be able to find frequent success against a relatively young Ole Miss offensive line. The Gators return both primary interior tackles in Kyriee Campbell (even though Campbell is not listed on the Gators two-deep depth chart that was released Monday) and Tedarrell Slaton, along with hybrid end/tackle Zach Carter.

 Not to mention, Georgia transfer Brenton Cox Jr., who’s earned the coveted No. 1 jersey in fall camp and will start at strong-side end. Promising sophomore Khris Bogle Jr. and senior Jeremiah Moon will rotate at the BUCK position and provide an excellent size and speed combination.

The mix of experience and talent should have its way against the reshuffled Rebel offensive line.

Ole Miss’ starting center from 2019, Eli Johnson, decided to opt-out this year. This will move redshirt junior Ben Brown from right-guard to center, a position he’s played very little at in his career.

Both tackles are returning players for the Rebels (Royce Newman at right tackle and freshman All-American Nick Broeker at left tackle), but it’s both guard spots that the Gators can feast on.

Only redshirt-sophomore Jalen Cunningham has significant game experience, and he wasn’t a starter in 2019.

The A-gaps are a place where the likes of Slaton and Carter can potentially have massive games. Grantham may more than likely bring more pressure than even he is traditionally known for, just to exploit this matchup. 

Look for the Gators linebackers to blitz often as well, specifically James Houston IV and Mohamoud Diabate who are effective pass rushers, and for Corral to end up on his back a lot

3. Florida run game vs. Ole Miss front-seven

The run game took a hit when it was announced Ethan White would miss the season-opener after undergoing knee surgery. He was a mauler when he was on the field a season ago, and continued to lose bad weight and put on strength. He was projected to start at left guard, and will now be replaced by Richard Gouraige.

Gouraige started late in 2019 when Chris Bleich entered the transfer portal, and showed promising flashes that he’ll be a capable starter.

The rest of the line is composed of redshirt-seniors. The experience mixed with a decent level of talent (left-tackle Stone Forsythe and right-guard Stewart Reese are expected to be the keys to the line) should have it’s way with a vastly inexperienced Ole Miss defensive front.

Ole Miss has zero returning starting defensive lineman.

How new defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin arranges and replaces the depleted line will be important to stop what is expected to be an improved Florida run game.

Dameon Pierce and Malik Davis are listed as co-starters on the depth chart. Pierce is expected to get more carries, but head coach Dan Mullen has raved about how Davis has bounced back after a rough 2019 campaign. Either of these backs should find success against the depleted Ole Miss offensive line.

4. Gators LB corps vs. Rebels run game

The defensive line against the offensive line is already discussed, but how the linebackers fare against what is Ole Miss’ most talented group will more than likely be the difference in this game becoming a Gator blow-out or a shoot-out.

Miller and Burney are listed as the starting linebackers, with Miller playing the MIKE (middle linebacker) and Burney playing the weak-side MONEY role. However, James Houston IV and Mohamoud Diabate will see the field often.

The Rebels had the second-best run game in the SEC a season ago, averaging over 250 yards per game. A lot of that had to do with the ability of dual-threat, well really only run-threat, quarterback John Rhys-Plumlee, who rushed for over 1,200 yards in his freshman season.

“We’re well aware that he can run, the guy is fast,” Wilson said. “We’ve got to make sure we keep an eye on that. Don’t get lazy in our techniques up front and make sure we hone in on that.”

However, with Rhys-Plumlee not likely to be the starter, the running backs will be relied on much more heavily.

Jerrion Ealy, a former 5-star recruit and current dual-sport athlete for the Rebels, returns as the leading rusher and is poised for a breakout season after he rushed for over 700 yards and six touchdowns as a freshman.

Ealy will be spelled by Snoop Conner and incoming 4-star running back Henry Parrish.

Plumlee is the biggest concern, assuming he gets substantial touches. The Gators struggled at times against running quarterbacks, and if Plumlee breaks a few runs, like he did against LSU last year, he could make trouble for Florida.

If Ealy and Plumlee can be contained, then it all but makes Ole Miss one dimensional. The Gators secondary depth is far superior than the Rebels wide receiver group (Moore is the only Ole Miss wideout who had over 200 receiving yards in 2019).

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