Directly after the madness of the College Football Playoffs, that are held on New Year’s Eve. The 2016 Sugar Bowl will demonstrate its superlative presence on New Year’s Day. The very last big bowl game features two schools who relatively weren’t expected to be here once this season started. Both teams have fought hard this regular season, and have endured untimely setbacks, yet also vast overachievement. For most of the regular season, the pair of multiply loss teams, Oklahoma State and Ole Miss, have ridden nearly opposite paths to get to New Orleans.
Starting off with Oklahoma State, that in September found themselves at a crossroads of who their starting quarterback would be. Head coach Mike Gundy was unsure of things early, as he was left with two burgeoning stars in Mason Rudolph and J.W. Walsh, who collectively contained the skills to both start on any given Saturday. Rudolph, a polished passer in the pocket, possessed all of the artistry Gundy wanted to access in his air-raid style offense. Walsh on the other hand, molded well as a dual-threat that later on adapted instinctively as the Cowboys free style option man. It was a risky decision, but the bold move to label the duo as starters on the depth chart has paid off majorly for the Cowboys.
Through the first ten weeks of the regular season, in which Oklahoma State went unbeaten, the Pokes put up 436 points (43.6 per game), as well as 4,976 total yards (497.6 per game). Seemingly, everything was rolling on both sides of the ball. Rudolph found consistent rhythm weekly with his receivers, and generated just enough of a run game to keep opponents off-balanced. And defensively, while they surrendered a great deal of yards, it oftentimes was dismissed by the ability to win the turnover margin. Then, once injuries on the offensive line began to pile up, this led to friction at the quarterback spot. Suddenly with no protection from his sturdy line, Rudolph became a regular participant on the ground, being sacked a combined 10 times during Oklahoma State’s two-game losing streak to end November. Gundy’s Cowboys will look to overcome their current hindrances and seek out the program’s third ever 11-win season and first New Year’s Day bowl win since their 1946 Sugar Bowl triumph over the Saint Mary’s Gaels.
Unlike their counterparts, Ole Miss’ route to the Sugar Bowl went about a different way. Similar to Oklahoma State, the Rebels had no clue of who their quarterback would be. But in contrast to the Cowboys, Ole Miss’ wasn’t one who was familiar with the overall offensive system, and that in itself created immense challenges to conquer. Ultimately, it was decisively in the hands of former Clemson Tiger Chad Kelly to run the Rebels offense almost unknowingly. Prior to the start of the season, Kelly had no expertise of starting within a D-1 college football team. As a result, head coach Hugh Freeze was forced to dummy down the playbook, this allowed Kelly to not feel as pressured. The simpler approach worked in a big way during September, as Ole Miss’ offense flourished through the air. The Rebels’ clear-cut offense paved way for an upset win over Alabama in Tuscaloosa, sky-rocketing Ole Miss into the Top 10 of the polls.
However, Kelly suddenly reverted back to the bad habits that cost him at Clemson, and subsequently the offensive production slowed down. After converting on 63% of his throws that went for 1,219 yards and 10 TDs. It was nearly expected for a young Kelly to take a decline eventually, but not like the one he experienced from October through November. During the expected regression, Kelly for the remainder of the regular season passed for 17 touchdowns and 2,521 yards (315 per game), but as the more shots Kelly took down field, the more mistakes it led to. Although his plethora of touchdowns and wicked passing performances kept the offense moving, his 10 interceptions the rest of the way killed occasional drives and drove Ole Miss out of SEC Championship contention, as they completed the regular season at 9-3.
Heading into this contest, it will be the program’s first Sugar Bowl appearance since 1970.
Why Oklahoma State Will Win
Do you remember the old saying, that all things work well in pairs? Well, when regarding the flow of Oklahoma State’s offense, for this season the old adage has reigned true. In all of the Cowboys’ victories this season, they’ve been able to string together some-sort of a dependable running game. It hasn’t been much, considering their rated as the 108th best rushing offense in the FBS, but in order for Oklahoma State to keep the nation’s 34th best scoring defense in Ole Miss, guessing, they must keep their offense balanced.
This starts with running back Chris Carson, who needs up to at least 12-15 carries for the game. I know that’s not a lot per say, but for a team like Oklahoma State whose offense is 80% structured around the pass, anything else on the ground is an extra incentive. Carson’s quickness and leverage alone should trouble Ole Miss as they haven’t seen a half back built bigger than six-foot since Derrick Henry and Leonard Fournette, who combined rushed for 4.9 yards per carry.
The next distinct advantage Oklahoma State holds over Ole Miss is at the quarterback position. Even though Mason Rudolph has been struggling with his accuracy, Mike Gundy won’t be afraid to fire J.W. Walsh under center if things aren’t working. In the meantime, Rudolph has completed 63% passes this season, which is near the amount that Ole Miss surrenders to opposing quarterbacks (61%). It should be to his benefit that Rudolph tries to stretch the Rebels’ secondary, as big-play receivers like James Washington and Marcell Ateman can burn them over the top.
One thing that recently has plagued the Cowboys has been its’ rather weak offensive line. Things don’t look to be in Oklahoma State’s favor when faced with Ole Miss’ persistent front-four. Although the absence of DT Robert Nkemdiche should slightly help matters. However, Oklahoma State is also blessed with an outstanding pass rush that’s led by future NFL draft pick, defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah. Who knows, with a relentless pass rush that Oklahoma State can counteract with, this could change the entire landscape of how each other’s offenses are utilized.
Why Ole Miss Will Win
Ole Miss all season have turned good quarterbacks into average to below-average ones by their relentless pass rush alone. For the last matchup of the season however, this will be the best quarterback they’ll have to face. Mason Rudolph is no joke to defend, his arm strength is far more superior than any of the ones that reside in the SEC. So in a case like this, what advantages does Ole Miss actually have?
Well, for one thing Ole Miss’ secondary has overcome stretches this season where the opposing quarterback’s accuracy has been overwhelming. When taking notice at the complete nature of Rudolph’s playing style, it’s not hard to reflect on the stuff he does well. Accuracy is his big strength, although for Rudolph the biggest marks that have hindered him this season has been completing pass consistently when pressured. In the losses to Baylor and Oklahoma, both the Sooners and the Bears rushed seven and dropped four in coverage almost regularly. This resulted in an unclean pocket for Rudolph to operate out of and consequently effected his throws.
One thing Ole Miss’ secondary does do a great job of is defending against the deep ball. Through the 12 games that the Rebels’ secondary have been passed on, they’ve surrendered on average 1.7 touchdowns through the air. Not to mention, they’ve intercepted 16 passes this season, which ranks in the top 40 in college football. Considering how rare it is Oklahoma State will line up and run the football, Ole Miss should be playing the pass nearly every down.
The last point is crucial, Ole Miss’ No. 1 option at receiver is Laquon Treadwell. Treadwell is a big-bodied receiver who is a nightmare for a defensive back to cover in space, specifically involved amid one-on-one coverage. Given how poorly Oklahoma State’s secondary faired against All-American’s Corey Coleman and Josh Docston, it’s hard to think this matchup won’t end differently.
Oklahoma State- J.W. Walsh
J.W. Walsh earns the slight edge as Oklahoma State’s impact performer simply because he’s another running threat that Ole Miss must account for. Generally when Ole Miss has sent full blitz packages to quarterbacks this year, it works due to the fact that they aren’t as mobile. This won’t be the case when Mike Gundy slips Walsh in at QB, who loves it when defenses decide to blitz him, as it leaves gaping holes for Walsh to use his feet and scramble for extra yards. Not to mention, Walsh’s speed factors in as well, Ole Miss’ linebackers haven’t encountered any up-tempo offense this season in the SEC, and although it’s easy to plan for, it’s another thing to execute live in games for the first time. And that’s what will be headed the Rebels way on January 1st.
Ole Miss- Laquon Treadwell
There’s no hiding it, Laquon Treadwell IS the key to Ole Miss’ success through the air. Having caught 76 passes for 1,082 yards and 8 touchdowns labels him as the Rebels’ best vertical threat and game-changing receiver. Relatively, there’s been just a handful of cornerbacks that have limited Treadwell’s production thus far, and given the unmistakable 6’3” size advantage he’ll have over Oklahoma State’s defensive backs. There should be no reason why Treadwell doesn’t break loose for multiple scores on his own.
Unless there so happens to be an impactful injury, then this should end up being one of the closer Sugar Bowls of recent memory. Given Oklahoma State’s glaring weakness at the offensive line when being dealt with an imposing defensive line of Ole Miss, poses as the biggest storyline for this one. However, when heading into bowl season it’s always best to be playing your best football late in the year. And as it stands, that’s just not what Oklahoma State is doing at the moment.
Oklahoma State might have more athletes on the field to match Ole Miss’ physicality, but it’s one thing to adjust minor problems on defense schematically, then to suddenly erase lingering blemishes that have been apparent all season.
Ole Miss 31
Oklahoma State 27