Ole Miss is facing a pretty tough 2016. Between the Rebels’ normal SEC West slate, drawing Georgia from the East, and opening against Florida State, Ole Miss has three projected top-10 opponents by S&P+ and five more in the top 25.
In part because of the timing, the opener (Sept. 5, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN) might be the hardest game.
The Noles expect to challenge Clemson for the ACC title and a Playoff shot. The Rebels are replacing both defensive tackles, both linebackers and two safeties and will have to deal with the most explosive running back in college football.
FSU’s Dalvin Cook is coming off a 1,691-yard season, leading the ACC in rushing, yards from scrimmage and total touchdowns despite frequent injury issues. His 7.4-yard average led all Power 5 backs who had 200-plus carries, by more than half a yard per carry. He’s a truly terrifying weapon.
But if the Rebels can survive Cook, they can survive anything, right?
Cook and the FSU run game pose a whole lot of problems.
The worst thing about defending him is how hard he can punish a mistake.
Against Clemson last year, Cook was corralled for only 37 yards on 16 specific carries. But he had 157 on five other carries.
In all but two full games, Cook wasn’t really corralled at all. He devastated defenses despite playing without a quarterback of Jimbo Fisher’s usual quality. That could change in a big way in 2016, with talented redshirt freshman Deondre Francois likely to step in and receivers Travis Rudolph, Kermit Whitfield, Jesus Wilson and Ryan Izzo (a tight end) returning.
The Florida State playbook includes popular gap schemes like power and dart, but this is a team that’s at its best with inside and outside zone runs.
Florida State’s offensive line is mostly made up of tall pass blockers who do their best run blocking on zone schemes. That’s when they can allow defensive linemen to attack gaps, and then the Noles’ linemen can seal them off with their length and mass.
The inside zone runs that aim for the cutback are some of the most deadly in Cook’s arsenal:
Once he’s loose on the second level, changing directions and blowing up angles, Cook is especially tough to stop. He’s lethal on zone schemes because he can threaten to win either edge, and then it’s off to the races.
Here, the weak outside linebacker (W) for Louisville is left unblocked, but he’s too far inside and with his shoulders turned the wrong way. That’s all Cook needs, and then it’s a race. Cook wins races.
Ole Miss can look to 2015’s Boston College and Houston for help.
There are strategies for handling Cook, though they may need updating if Francois winds up anything like Fisher’s last big-time redshirt freshman QB, Jameis Winston.
Last year, Cook’s two worst games came against Boston College and Houston, when FSU’s OL was banged up. He rushed 33 times for 87 yards in those games, an average of 2.6 per run.
The Eagles and Cougars bottled up Cook by aggressively tending the edges and forcing the Noles to do their damage between the tackles. That’s what Ole Miss needs to do.
Cook is a nifty runner between the tackles, but he does his best work winning the edge. The FSU line often isn’t great at driving sturdy fronts off the ball. That’s how an offensive line opens creases, and it’s not the Noles’ strength.
Take this example against Florida State’s I-formation, in which the Cougars load up both edges and dare FSU to do its damage with straight-ahead running:
Boston College followed a similar plan, with all of its blitzes and defenses designed to send numbers aggressively to the edge so that Cook would have nowhere to run but the middle of the field, where Ole Miss will be a bit bigger up front.
Ole Miss may or may not be able to execute this scheme. The Rebels’ green interior defense will need to be disciplined, and even then, Francois could be good enough to ruin everything by forcing the Rebels to move bodies to cover passing targets.
In terms of discipline and execution, while Ole Miss is losing multiple impact players to the NFL, 83 percent of its starters could be players in at least their third year in Hugh Freeze’s program. On defense, the Rebels could field upperclassmen at every position, save for sophomore tackle Breeland Speaks and perhaps a safety.
Cook has presumably had Ole Miss’ attention for an entire offseason. It’s reasonable to expect the defense to be disciplined enough to give this a serious try.
Ole Miss has experience facing running backs on Cook’s level.
The Rebels took on a similar challenge against LSU star Leonard Fournette last year. In that game, they allowed Fournette 108 yards on 25 carries, a solid day’s work for him, but not enough for LSU to score more than 17 points in an Ole Miss win.
That Ole Miss approach was the same as that of Houston or Boston College against Cook. The Rebels loaded the perimeters with tightly packed defenders. Tiger tight ends and fullbacks couldn’t open creases, and Fournette couldn’t find angles on the edge.
Cook presents a different challenge. At 210 pounds, he’s better at finding the edge than the 230-pound Fournette is, but less threatening when coming downhill against defensive backs in the open field. That makes it an obvious strategy for Ole Miss, against Cook, to leave one safety up high and send a bunch of linebackers and DBs to cover the edge.
How Fisher intends to counter that strategy could define the day. Does he diversify the Noles’ run game and look for ways to punch holes in the middle? Or does he turn to Francois to make the Rebels pay down the field?
If the Rebels can control Cook, Florida State’s early Playoff aspirations could come down to how quickly FSU can get top production out of players like Francois and 6’5 sophomore receiver Auden Tate.
Together, Francois and Tate have massive potential.
If Florida State has an efficient passing game with serious big-play ability, the entire offense becomes an unsolvable riddle.
You can’t send help to the edges to stop Cook if Francois and company are picking apart a depleted defensive backfield. And you can’t drop many defenders into coverage without hoping an ordinary complement of tacklers can somehow find Cook.
If Ole Miss schemes correctly and makes its tackles against Cook, the Rebels ought to have a chance. Then again, if it turns out Florida State’s passing game has taken a leap, it might not matter.