Ole Miss is three days away from opening its season against Boise State, yet the 18th-ranked Rebels are going to have to wait until the ball's kicked off before they know exactly what they're going to get from their opponent.
Ole Miss is more than a week into preparations for Boise State, and the new-look Broncos are making formulating a game plan more difficult than usual.
Boise State has a new coach in former offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin, who left Arkansas State after one season to replace Chris Petersen. Harsin, who coordinated the Broncos' offenses from 2006-2010, has the brought with him a new staff, including offensive coordinator Mike Sanford, who's calling plays for the first time after spending the last three seasons as an assistant at Stanford.
"It's definitely difficult on the (defensive) staff because the coordinator that's been hired has not been a coordinator before," Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said. "I'm sure he'll take something from everywhere he's been just like all of us did, but you're just not quite sure what his flavor is. That's a bit difficult."
Arkansas State's spread offense averaged 29.2 points in Harsin's only season at the helm, and his background as a playcaller at Texas and Boise State gives the Rebels an inkling of what to expect. But Ole Miss will look back at all of previous stops for Harsin and Sanford to get a more complete idea of what it could see from the Broncos at the Georgia Dome on Thursday.
That also goes for the Broncos' defense, which is breaking in a new coordinator in former Texas A&M co-defensive coordinator Marcel Yates.
All that film study won't cover everything, which has the Rebels prepared to execute what they do regardless of any new wrinkles they may see.
"It's difficult just because we've had to look at two teams and three different years of film just to kind of get a feel for what they're going to do," Wallace said. "But at the same time, (our) tempo, it can help us if they come out in something totally different. We can just go to tempo. That's what I'm comfortable in."
But Ole Miss is exhausting all avenues to get familiar with the Broncos.
"It's not the easiest thing in the world," Freeze said, "but it happens."
PLAYERS TO WATCH
--QB Bo Wallace enters his senior season as the dean of Southeastern Conference quarterbacks (26 starts) and ranks second in school history in total offense (7,085 yards) and passing yards (6,340). He's also got a clean bill of health after a full offseason of rehab and strength training got his throwing shoulder back to 100 percent, which should help open up the Rebels' no-huddle offense.
--DT Robert Nkemdiche received a ton of hype last season as the nation's top-ranked recruit in the 2013 recruiting cycle. Acclimation and injuries slowed Nkemdiche's production, though he showed flashes with 35 tackles in six starts. But the 6-foot-5, 290-pound sophomore has settled in on the interior on the line and has been virtually unblockable in camp. He could be in line for a breakout year.
--Speaking of breakout seasons, S Cody Prewitt went from a virtual unknown to one of the nation's top defensive playmakers a season ago. The senior All-American, who led the SEC with six interceptions and was the Rebels' second-leading tackler, leads an experienced secondary -- Ole Miss returns every starter in the back five -- with the size (6-2, 220 pounds) and instincts of a prototypical ballhawk.
--LT Laremy Tunsil has quickly morphed into one of the county's top offensive lineman regardless of age. The 6-5, 305-pound Tunsil was one of just two freshmen nationwide to start at left tackle a season ago, and the Outland Trophy Watch lister allowed just one sack. He should be even better with a year of seasoning under his belt.
SERIES HISTORY: This year's game will mark the first meeting between the teams.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "You really just don't know what to expect. We can watch film on Arkansas State, which is where (Harson) came from, but he still could throw something new in there." -- CB Mike Hilton, on preparing for a Boise State team with a new coaching staff
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Scouting the running game: Ole Miss finished in the middle of the conference in rushing offense a season ago (190 yards per game). That could improve with more than half its starters back on the offensive line and additions to the backfield through recruiting. Juniors I'Tavius Mathers (563 yards) and Jaylen Walton (523) are back after leading the Rebels in rushing a season ago, and redshirt freshmen Jordan Wilkins and Eugene Brazley along with junior college signee Akeem Judd give Ole Miss a stable of six backs fighting for carries.
Scouting the passing game: The Rebels' strength a season ago was its passing game -- when it was able to throw. Wallace threw for 3,346 yards and 18 touchdowns while trimming his interception total from 17 to 10, but many of those yards came on short to intermediate routes with his receivers helping him out with a bum shoulder that all but eliminated the Rebels' deep passing attack. But with a healthy throwing arm intact for Wallace and some top targets back in reigning SEC Freshman of the Year Laquon Treadwell and Evan Engram, Ole Miss should be able to stretch defenses horizontally and vertically.
Scouting the run defense: Ole Miss is bigger up front with Nkemdiche and Woody Hamilton (6-3, 315) inside and Fadol Brown (6-4, 280) complimenting C.J. Johnson's speed at end, but the Rebels are a bit undersized at linebacker with senior Deterrian Shackelford (6-1, 247) by far the biggest body among the group. The Rebels make up for it with speed on the outside in Serderius Bryant and Denzel Nkemdiche, but the lack of bulk could make it hard for Ole Miss to improve on last year's ninth-ranked rushing defense (154.9 yards per game) in the SEC if the defensive line can't get penetration early.
Scouting the pass defense: This area should be the most improved for the Rebels' defense this season. Ole Miss gave up 215 yards a game through the air last year, and every starter in the secondary returns, led by All-American safety Cody Prewitt. The loss of rising cornerback Tee Shepard, a junior college signee, to a season-ending toe injury hurts, but Ole Miss has depth that should be able to make a difference.
Scouting the special teams: This is arguably the biggest question mark for Ole Miss heading into 2014. Gone are punter Tyler Campbell and placekicker Andrew Ritter, leaving those positions with no experience. Redshirt freshman Will Gleeson has won the punter's job while things are still tight between senior Andrew Fletcher and true freshman Gary Wunderlich at kicker. As of now, Fletcher would handle kicks inside 40 yards, Freeze said, while Wunderlich could get a shot at the longer boots. These will be positions to keep an eye on early.
DRAFT PROSPECTS (includes 2015 NFLDraftScout.com rating as applicable):
--QB Bo Wallace (No. 17 quarterback, 283rd overall) -- enters senior season fully healthy after dealing with lingering effects of a separated shoulder suffered in 2012
--S Cody Prewitt (No. 4 safety, 81st overall) -- combines size, instincts and experience to be one of the nation's top defensive playmakers; preseason All-American and Jim Thorpe Award Watch List
--Ole Miss has filed waivers with the NCAA appealing for the immediate eligibility of transfer OL Christian Morris and WR Damore'ea Stringfellow, but Freeze said Monday he's still waiting on a final word.
--DT Issac Gross, who missed part of fall camp with a strained neck, returned to practice Sunday. Freeze said he's "hopeful" Gross, who's listed as the team's third-string nosetackle, will be available Thursday.
--WR Collins Moore was back running at Sunday's practice after missing all of camp with a knee injury he suffered in the offseason. The junior won't play against Boise State, Freeze said, but he's got a shot to return Sept. 6 against Vanderbilt.
--RB Jaylen Walton, S Trae Elston and CB Kailo Moore are in line to return kickoffs, Freeze said late last week. S Anthony Alford and WR Markell Pack, a freshman, will be the primary punt returners.
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- Bryan Harsin
- Ole Miss
- Robert Nkemdiche
- Hugh Freeze
- Cody Prewitt