Ole Miss must readjust its goals.
So must LSU — albeit in a much different way — as No. 23 Ole Miss and No. 25 LSU prepare for their annual encounter Saturday (9 p.m. ET, ESPN) in Baton Rouge, La.
The Rebels (3-3, 1-2 SEC) entered the 2016 campaign hopeful the season would end in some kind of championship, but after six games they are sitting at .500 with that title talk in all likelihood muted for good.
The Tigers (4-2, 2-1) came into the fall with a preseason No. 5 ranking and harboring hopes of making the College Football Playoff, but started 2-2.
Coach Les Miles was fired at that point, but suddenly LSU caught fire under interim coach Ed Orgeron, posting big wins in their last two games (42-7 over Missouri and 45-10 over Southern Mississippi).
With only one conference defeat and games remaining against West Division leaders Alabama and Texas A&M, the Tigers see themselves back in the title picture, if not nationally at least in the conference.
“You can see a little pep in their step. Guys are making plays, guys are having fun,” Orgeron said this week. “I know they feel good about being 2-0.”
OIe Miss, coming off a 34-30 loss to Arkansas that dropped it to 1-3 against ranked opponents, are a bit of a mystery. How will quarterback Chad Kelly and company react to the loss at Arkansas that was sealed when he lost a fumble on the Rebels’ final drive, ending hopes for a comeback win?
“I think this is when you find out a lot about yourself, a lot about your team, and a lot about your kids,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said.
The Rebels figure to see their defense, which doesn’t rank any better than 74th nationally in total defense, scoring defense, rush defense or pass defense, severely tested by an LSU offense that has come to life the last two games.
The Tigers put up 634 yards in total yards against Missouri — an LSU high against an SEC foe — and followed that up with 45 points and 459 yards against Southern Mississippi. The Tigers have the SEC’s fourth-best rushing attack even though they have been operating without star running back and Heisman hopeful Leonard Fournette, who missed the last two games with an ankle injury.
Derrius Guice has filled in admirably for Fournette with 564 yards on 621 carries. Fournette is expected rejoin him this week to give the Tigers a 1-2 punch that will go right at an Ole Miss defense that ranks 12th in the league against the run.
“This will be the ultimate test for us playing against Leonard Fournette,” Ole Miss defensive end Marquis Haynes said.
Orgeron is even toying with the idea of using Guice and Fournette in the backfield at the same time.
“We want to rotate our guys, we want them to keep fresh,” Orgeron said. “It might be a possibility of putting them both in the backfield at the same time. We have to watch them in practice.”
Fournette, Orgeron indicated, is anxious to get back on the field.
“We’re going to let him do all he can,” Orgeron said, “and he’s going to tell me, ‘Hey, coach. I’m 100 percent, 80 percent, 90 percent. These are the things I can do.’
“We’ll run the plays he’s able to run. The plays he’s not able to run, we won’t run them. But we’ll play both. I think they’re both outstanding backs.”
Adding a side note to the matchup is the relationship between the two coaches.
Orgeron went 10-25 as Ole Miss’ coach from 2005-07 and gave Freeze, his first on-field college coaching job in 2006.
“I really don’t know that my career does what it does without the opportunity he gave me,” Freeze said.
Orgeron said his ties to the program and Freeze won’t be a factor this week, however. This is about his players, he said.
“I won’t mention it,” he said. “That’s the furthest from my mind. This is about the LSU Tigers. This is about this football team. This is about a very good opponent coming into Tiger Stadium.”