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Ole Miss looks for New Year's bowl redemption before a massive transition

Ole Miss wants to rebound after a disastrous bowl showing a year ago. OSU wants to rebound after a derailment at the end of the regular season. Motivation shouldn't be a problem in the Sugar Bowl. Jan. 1, 8:30 ET, ESPN.

Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

SB Nation 2015 Bowl Calendar

1. The Land Sharks are dead. Long live the Land Sharks.

Former no-name recruit Denzel Nkemdiche, on whom former Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt took a flier, was the first step. When he began to thrive under Hugh Freeze, his brother, all-world blue-chipper Robert Nkemdiche, began to take Freeze's pitch seriously. When Robert did, so did other blue-chippers.

What resulted was one of the more out-of-nowhere great recruiting classes in recent memory*. Fresh off a 7-6 season, Freeze signed the No. 8 class, according to the 247Sports Composite, one that featured other five-stars in offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil, receiver Laquon Treadwell and safety Tony Conner.

This class, which also included eventual stars like receiver Quincy Adeboyejo and tight end Evan Engram, created the backbone for high-level play in 2014 and 2015. In both seasons, the Rebels have ranked in the top 10 in S&P+ (to date), and a Sugar Bowl win would give them 19 victories in two seasons, the program's most since 1961-62, when John Vaught's Rebels had a constant top-10 presence.

That's a strong accomplishment. And the success of the 2013 class has paved the way for another potentially awesome class in 2016. But the "what-if" aura is inescapable.

The offense collapsed following a gruesome Treadwell injury in 2014, and the Rebels lost four of six after a 7-0 start. This year, the offense has been underrated (11th in Off. S&P+) despite a half-season suspension for Tunsil. But the Land Shark defense, so dominant and fun when healthy, has faded because of injury (Conner has played in only five games, and star tackle Issac Gross has played in only one) and issues (both Nkemdiches have been suspended at times, and both will miss the bowl).

The Rebels rebounded to 23rd in Def. S&P+ despite a drastic midseason funk (Florida and Memphis combined to score 75 points), but after last season's undefeated start, the key cast of characters was never on the field at the same time. Nkemdiche, Tunsil, Treadwell, etc., are just about done with their three-year waiting period. The NFL calls.

Ole Miss' stature, in both recruiting and on-field play, improved thanks to Freeze and the 2013 class. Thanks to last season's Peach Bowl debacle -- TCU 42, Rebels 3 -- there might be sufficient motivation for a nice final chapter. But without the Nkemdiches or Conner on the field, that chapter will feel a little anticlimactic no matter what.

* Why yes, the fact that a team in the SEC West, with three claimed national titles, can come from "out of nowhere" to sign only the No. 8 class tells you everything you need to know about recruiting's restrictive oligarchy.

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2. A Cowboy rebound, in theory

You have to play well enough for luck to matter. Oklahoma State may have stumbled into a win over Texas because of a muffed punt snap and may have been granted a strange first down during a scoring drive in a two-point win over Kansas State, but the Cowboys were close enough for those breaks to push them over the top. And they may have won a coin-toss game at West Virginia, but WVU was pretty good! Getting to coin-toss status was somewhat impressive.

OSU probably shouldn't have been 6-0, and the Pokes probably shouldn't have pulled off an insane comeback at Iowa State to move to 10-0, but they did. There are no takebacks.

Still, after threatening to break through, the end was nigh.

  • Average percentile performance (first 6 games): 78%
  • Average percentile performance (next 3 games): 89%
  • Average percentile performance (last 3 games): 34%

After OSU barely survived Iowa State, quarterback Mason Rudolph hurt his foot in a home loss to Baylor. When the winning streak ended, the Pokes had nothing left for Oklahoma's visit, a 58-23 loss that, thanks to two untimely interceptions and 44 first-half Sooner points, was Bedlam for all the wrong reasons.

Rudolph's status for Friday night is uncertain -- he's expected to play, but it's not clear how much -- but even if senior J.W. Walsh takes most of the snaps, the pass will be key.

OSU's run game has been horrific, and even without Nkemdiche, Ole Miss' front appears to have the advantage. OSU will need to be able to throw, and despite Walsh's strong raw stats (68 percent completion rate, 13 touchdowns, one interception, no sacks), Rudolph is the better option in must-pass situations. A lot of Walsh's passes came in short-yardage situations, where his mobility makes him a stronger option.

This probably isn't going to be a low-scoring game. Ole Miss' passing game caught fire -- Chad Kelly's stat line over the final three games: 64-of-98, 884 yards, seven touchdowns, no picks, 164.6 passer rating -- and while OSU's pass defense isn't bad (and the pass rush is quite good), the Rebels are probably going to put some points up. OSU will have to match.

3. Key Stat: Standard downs success

Check out the monstrous stat preview here.

Spread: Ole Miss -6.5
S&P+ Projection: Ole Miss 35.9, Oklahoma State 27.8
Team Sites: Cowboys Ride For Free, Red Cup Rebellion
Oklahoma State Offense Ole Miss Defense
Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Edge
Standard Downs S&P+ 97.2 87 113.8 24 Ole Miss big
Standard Downs Success Rate 45.7% 84 42.6% 33 Ole Miss big
Standard Downs IsoPPP 1.09 66 1.14 31 Ole Miss
Ole Miss Offense Oklahoma State Defense
Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Edge
Standard Downs S&P+ 129.9 1 107.1 39 Ole Miss
Standard Downs Success Rate 53.6% 13 46.1% 61 Ole Miss
Standard Downs IsoPPP 1.28 8 1.02 83 Ole Miss big

Rudolph and Kelly were among the nation's best passing downs passers; OSU ranks seventh in Passing Downs S&P+, and Ole Miss ranks ninth.

But even good offenses are at a disadvantage if they face too many second- or third-and-long situations. The team that can stay on schedule with the base offense is the one that will win.

At first glance, that appears to be Ole Miss. Like Michigan State, OSU has relied on passing downs magic to overcome a nightmare of a run game, and that caught up to the Pokes. If Rudolph is anything less than 100 percent, this recipe might REALLY backfire. Meanwhile, the Rebels have the top-ranked standard downs offense in the country.

If OSU can match Ole Miss on first down, the Pokes could secure a win. But that's a tall task.

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