Know Your Enemy: Florida Gators vs. Ole Miss Q&A with The Grove Report
Photo credit: Josh McCoy, Ole Miss Athletics
The SEC kicks off its 10-game season on Saturday, which means it's time for some crossover content.
Each week, we'll interview the publisher of the corresponding Sports Illustrated site for the Florida Gators' upcoming opponent, or another member of that team's beat. To begin the season, we're joined by Nathanael Gabler, the lead publisher of Sports Illustrated-The Grove Report, covering Mississippi athletics.
Gabler shared what we can expect from Ole Miss' talented quarterback room, the Rebels' shaky defense entering a new season, and even a game prediction. Let's get to know your enemy for the week!
Q&A with Nathanael Gabler of SI's The Grove Report
1. Florida is preparing to face two quarterbacks on Saturday in Matt Corral and John Rhys Plumlee. How can head coach Lane Kiffin best utilize each guy and what's the word on their development through fall camp?
Lane Kiffin isn't going to name a starter and we won't know who starts until the first Ole Miss drive on Saturday. That said, all signs early out of camp pointed to Matt Corral (the more traditional quarterback of the two) to be the starting quarterback. However, when the team released starters for the Florida game earlier in the week, they were both named on the list.
I would expect Plumlee (a true athlete who recorded over 1,000 rushing yards a year ago as a true freshman despite only starting eight games) to have a role in the offense. Will they rotate quarterbacks early in the year until Kiffin picks a starter? Maybe. Will Plumlee have redzone packages where his legs can be even more dangerous? Maybe.
As you would expect, all word out of camp is that they've both improved pretty significantly as passers. How much of that is true vs. hearsay in a year where media can't attend practices.
2. Speaking of Lane Kiffin, what is the energy like around the team so far under the new head coach? This season will be as unpredictable as any in history, but what are the early expectations for Ole Miss under his leadership?
The Kiffin thing has always been funny to me. His real-life personality is not at all his public persona. He's more of a very introverted quiet guy than a life of the party type. The team definitely has a different type of swagger about it this season, just from the history of Kiffin's offenses and having Ole Miss be more of a national brand now under the new staff. As for expectations under his leadership, I don't think anyone expects all that much in year one, especially in this bizarre offseason without spring ball and without true recruiting.
3. What matchups do you like most on paper between Ole Miss' offense and Florida's defense? What will the Gators need to do to contain running back Jerrion Ealy and wide receiver Elijah Moore?
On paper, I love the matchup of Elijah Moore vs. CJ McWilliams in the slot. I'd expect the Rebels to test McWilliams' health early against the best Ole Miss passing game threat in Moore, who is low-key seen as one of the top slot prospects in the 2021 NFL draft. I'd expect a bit of various coverage on Moore, from just McWilliams to maybe some bracketing and safety help. As for Ealy, a large part of how to defend the Rebel rushing game will depend on who the starting quarterback is.
4. What are the current strengths and weaknesses of Ole Miss' defense? Florida owned the No. 16 passing offense a year ago, but the Rebels' have some talent in their secondary - can the pass rush make this game competitive?
Ole Miss is going to be really, really good in the middle of the field at linebacker. The weaknesses would be everything in front and behind of those linebackers.
In the secondary, Ole Miss was last in the SEC in passing yards allowed in 2019 and second to last in 2018. It's a weird conundrum – they return a ton of experienced secondary players, but those guys haven't exactly played that well prior.
On the defensive line it's the opposite problem. Three Rebel starters from last season are in the NFL now. The only proven player for Gator fans to keep an eye on that could be in the Florida backfield a lot on Saturday is EDGE player Sam Williams, who led Ole Miss in sacks, hurries and TFLs last season.
5. Who are some lesser-known talents that you believe can make an impact right out of the gate for Ole Miss?
Tavius Robinson, the EDGE starter opposite of Williams, is someone I've been fascinated by all offseason. Robinson, at 6-foot-7 and 245 pounds, has never played FBS football but is a junior. That's because he just transferred to Ole Miss this offseason from Guelph University in Canada. Now, he's starting. Oh, and he apparently runs a 4.60 40 at that size. Robinson is going to be raw, but he's going to be really fun to watch develop.
Two guys on offense that could go from unknown to big pieces are Jonathan Mingo at receiver and Henry Parrish Jr. at running back. Mingo started 12 games as a true freshman at receiver and everyone in camp seems to think he's one of the most improved players on the team. Parrish, a true freshman, was a really highly recruited running back from South Florida that Kiffin says will see playing time Saturday.
Editor's note: Florida was one of the final teams in contention for Parrish's services out of Columbus High School (Miami, Fla.). Parrish and Gators freshman wide receiver Xzavier Henderson were high school teammates. It will be interesting to see how the two are utilized, as Henderson has earned plenty of praise from coaches and teammates throughout fall camp and should be expected to play within the Gators' rotation at receiver.
Zach Goodall, AllGators: Florida lost five pass-catchers with 20+ receptions to the NFL from last year's No. 16 passing offense. That's the bad news. The good news: Quarterback Kyle Trask returns after a breakout year in which he threw for 25 touchdowns and nearly 3,000 yards, along with dynamic tight end Kyle Pitts, another two pass-catchers with 20+ receptions in 2019, and four returning starters paired with Mississippi State grad transfer Stewart Reese on the offensive line. Ole Miss probably won't be able to slow Trask and Co. down so long as chemistry has carried over from a year ago - granted, a lack of spring camp could certainly be a factor there.
Florida's defense splits pretty evenly between experienced upperclassmen and intriguing young players, such as sophomore cornerback Kaiir Elam who has already proven to be an X-factor. It will be a dependable unit for the most part, but could be susceptible early on to meshes and short passing concepts as the linebacker unit and starting nickel corner, C.J. McWilliams, gel without David Reese II.
At the end of the day, I believe Lane Kiffin will have a few tricks up his sleeve to make this game competitive offensively, but Florida's offense should have little issue moving the ball consistently and the defense should get stronger as the action goes on.
Pick: Florida 41, Ole Miss 28 (Ole Miss covers +14, over hits)
Nathaniel Gabler, Grove Report: There's so few things we can be certain of going into this strange season after a really weird and abbreviated offseason. One thing I've been bullish on entering the year is that teams with more continuity will thrive, especially early. Even if Ole Miss had the same roster talent as Florida (they don't), the continuity at Florida is head and shoulders above that here at Ole Miss. The Vegas line for this game is sitting right at two touchdowns right now. I do think Ole Miss will be able to score enough to cover, but I also think the lack of normal training camps and non-conference warmup games will keep scoring down a bit across the SEC this week.
Pick: Ole Miss 20, Florida 32 (Ole Miss covers +14, under hits)