Texas A&M defense is toughest Ole Miss football has faced. How big will this challenge be?
OXFORD — It's fascinating to see what happens when great defenses face great offenses.
No. 12 Ole Miss (7-2, 3-2 SEC) hosts No. 11 Texas A&M (7-2, 4-2) in the weekend's best and most notably style clash Saturday (6 p.m., ESPN). Ole Miss boasts the nation's No. 4 total offense and leads the SEC in first downs per game. Texas A&M has the country's No. 2 scoring defense, allowing just 14.7 points per game.
The interesting thing about these strengths is how diverse they are. Ole Miss ranks top-five in the SEC in scoring, rushing offense, passing offense and first downs per game. Texas A&M ranks top-five in the SEC in scoring defense, rushing defense, passing defense, red zone defense and third-down defense.
As Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin puts it, Texas A&M doesn't have a soft spot an offense can exploit.
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"It really looks like when you watch NFL defenses where basically everybody is a really good player that looks right," Kiffin said. "A lot of times you go to play somebody and you can tell right away after a few series 'OK, this player is a weak link' or 'this player's short' or they've got a small defensive tackle or something like that. That's not what this is."
Like Kiffin, Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher is a Nick Saban disciple. Kiffin said he thinks Fisher learned Saban's lesson that the best thing a coach can do is recruit "a bunch of really good defensive players." This year's Aggies have those in droves, headlined by defensive linemen DeMarvin Leal and Tyree Johnson and defensive backs Leon O'Neal and Jaylon Jones.
Ole Miss plays fast. Only two Power 5 teams run more plays per game than the Rebels' 77. But, as Kiffin explains, tempo can come back to bite you against a top-tier defense.
Kiffin used the example of two games he's coached at Ole Miss against Alabama. In 2020, the Rebels scored 48 points on 86 plays using tempo to their advantage. They gained 31 first downs and converted 13 of 21 third- and fourth-down tries. In 2021, Alabama held Ole Miss to 21 points on 63 plays. The Rebels only gained 18 first downs and went just 7-for-19 on third and fourth downs.
"When it goes good, you're making first downs, you're going really fast, they're not getting lined up," Kiffin said. "When it goes bad, they get the ball back really fast. That is what it is with this system."
Given the way these teams are trending, Texas A&M has the strength-on-strength advantage. The Aggies held Missouri, South Carolina and Auburn to a combined 3.7 yards per play, allowing just 31 points. Ole Miss' banged-up offense totaled a season-low in plays run against Liberty and has dropped its season total in rushing yards per game by 25 over its last two games.
It is worth noting that Ole Miss is finding a way through its injuries. Senior receiver Braylon Sanders played at less than 100% against Liberty but proved he can be a weapon in limited capacity. Along the way, second-string receivers Jahcour Pearson, Dannis Jackson and John Rhys Plumlee all had 100-yard days in the last two weeks.
Passing against the Aggies is feasible. Matt Corral showed he can pass efficiently and accurately on his injured ankle, so long as he has a mostly clean pocket. Arkansas, Mississippi State and Alabama all threw well against the Aggies, averaging 9.7 yards per pass attempt with eight touchdowns versus one interception.
Running effectively might be more difficult. Auburn's vaunted run game only mustered 73 yards against Texas A&M. Only four FBS teams have allowed fewer rushing touchdowns all year than Fisher's bunch.
Ole Miss running back Jerrion Ealy understands and is excited for the challenge ahead.
"They play four down and have four of the best guys in our conference," Ealy said. "I think we're going to go out and get them though. It's going to be a task, but it's going to be a task we're capable of handling."
Contact Nick Suss at 601-408-2674 or email@example.com. Follow @nicksuss on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Mississippi Clarion Ledger: Ole Miss offense vs. Texas A&M defense: Who has the edge?