In a neutral site game in Atlanta, Ole Miss and Louisville are scheduled to kick off their 2021 seasons on Monday. We hit up the publisher of the Cardinals' SI site for his takes on the Labor Day matchup.
Q: Louisville went 4-7 last season with three of those wins coming in the ACC. Before we dive into topics about Monday night, what was your overall impression of last year's team?
A: This was actually a much better team than a lot of people realize. They had a top 30 offense in terms of pure yardage, and their defense took a tremendous step forward. Two years removed from fielding one of the worst defenses in college football history, they were able to spork a top-40 defense in terms of yardage and scoring, as well as the 17th-ranked passing defense in the nation (189.2 PYPG). The problem was their turnover margin. They gave away the football 24 times, only secured 12 takeaways of their own on defense, resulting in the second-worst turnover margin in the FBS. With how many 50/50 games Louisville played last year, if their turnover margin was just zero, they very well could have been a 7-4 or 8-3 team.
Q: Louisville outgained its opponents on an average of 444.2 to 369.1 YPG a season ago, and Ole Miss' defense was notoriously porous in 2020. How do you feel about this matchup, especially with a returning dual-threat quarterback in Malik Cunningham calling shots for the Cardinals?
A: The big question here is which Cunningham shows up? In 2019, he set the single-season school record for passing efficiency, and had he thrown just one more pass, he would have been second in the nation behind Joe Burrow. In 2020, the yardage and completion numbers were there, but so were the 12 interceptions and three lost fumbles. Over the offseason, he actually made it his number one goal to turn into more of a pocket passer: trust his instincts, go through his progressions, and take what the defense gives him instead of maybe taking a risk he doesn’t need. Arguably, the bigger question offensively is what receiver steps up? All-ACC pass-catchers Tutu Atwell and Dez Fitzpatrick are now in the NFL, and there is a lot of inexperience left in the WR room. Sure, there are guys like Justin Marshall, Jordan Watkins, and Tyler Harrell who have loads of potential, as do several others, but there is a lot of “unproven depth” there, so to speak.
Q: Same question on the other side: quarterback Matt Corral is the bell cow for this Ole Miss offense, but they're an under-the-radar team when it comes to running the football, leading the SEC in rushing yards a season ago. How do you feel that Louisville's defense matches up with the Rebel offense?
A: I feel good, but not great. The secondary has the starters to be able to slow down Corral and Co., but it’s the thinnest position group on the roster. CB Kei’Trel Clark has All-American potential, we’ve heard nothing but good things about transfer safeties Kenderick Duncan and Qwynnterrio Cole, and Chandler Jones could be the X-factor on defense playing between corner and safety. But, there isn’t much experience behind them. As far as the front seven goes, I’ll take the linebacking group against anyone. CJ Avery and Monty Montgomery might be the best ILB tandem in the ACC, and Yasir Abdullah & Nick Okeke are great pass rushers. As for the defensive line, I’m a tad skeptical. Stopping the run has been an Achilles heel for the defense for several years now, but there are signs it could improve. DE YaYa Diaby looks like a man on a mission, and there is now depth at the nose tackle position compared to years past. Will it all come together in game one? Probably not, but the run support should look markedly better than in years past.
Q: Ole Miss and Louisville have never met on the gridiron before despite both being Power Five teams. What are you most looking forward to about this first-time matchup in a Labor Day neutral site game?
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A: This game has the blueprint to be an absolute barnburner, and I’m excited about the potential for the scoreboard to light up. But as it pertains to Louisville specifically, I’m excited to see how they respond with a tall task right out of the gates. They could have scheduled a cupcake to start the season, but you don’t exactly learn much about your team when playing someone you know you’re going to wallop. We think we know what to expect from Louisville this season, but we’ll get to see what they’re made of early.
Q: Louisville wins the game on Monday if __________.
A: They win the turnover battle. Both quarterbacks last season at some point showed they had issues with interceptions. If Cunningham can truly take what the defense gives him, as he’s said he has worked on numerous times, and the defense makes Corral uncomfortable to the point where he makes mistakes, I believe that will give Louisville the best chance to come away with a victory.
Q: Ole Miss wins the game on Monday if __________.
A: They establish the run game early. If Jerrion Ealy takes advantage of a potentially suspect Louisville defensive line, it will force the secondary to alter their alignment to help the run support, and then Corral and Co. will be able to do whatever they want down the field.
Q: Final predictions time. What do you think Monday's result will be when the clock hits zero?
A: As much as I think Louisville will be better than last year, Ole Miss is an extremely tall task right out of the gates. The Ole Miss offense is absolutely better than Louisville’s, and while the Louisville defense could be equipped to handle Lane Kiffin’s style and make plays from time to time, I think it will be too much to overcome at the end of the day. Louisville’s own offense will keep things close and cover the spread, but I’m taking Ole Miss 42-35.
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