It’s always hard to determine what will happen during the first game of any season. As BYU travels to Oxford, Miss., optimism is high on both ends as is the case for every team entering the season.
So who has the greater reason to be optimistic about what Saturday’s result will actually be? How do the teams match up with one another, and which of those match-ups will give a decided edge?
BYU rushing offense vs. Ole Miss
Almost nothing has changed with BYU’s rushing attack save the availability of fullback Zed Mendenhall, who is battling a sprained ankle. The Cougars will present the same three-man rotation of senior JJ Di Luigi, 5-9, 185, and Bryan Kariya, 6-0, 217, and sophomore Joshua Quezada, 5-11, 202.
Overall, this trio combined to rush for 1,959 of the team’s total 2,185 net yards on the ground a season ago. That stat should be similar this season.
“We have a good group,” said Di Luigi. “We have Bryan, who runs great between the tackles and is great in short-yardage situations. You have Josh, who really played well as a sophomore and will be even better this year, and then there’s me. I was happy with what I did last season and hopefully can improve upon that this year.”
Ole Miss has a defense that will stack the line frequently in order to stop the run. From what the team has seen on film, it will forgo its 4-3 base defense and present five down linemen frequently throughout the course of a game.
“It’s called the bear claw, after the Chicago Bears who sort of invented it,” said Di Luigi about the five down linemen the Rebels will use. “It’s obviously a formation that is very tough to run on with them stacking the front. If they go to that a lot, then I guess it will mean we’re doing a decent job of running the football.”
The Rebel defensive front is largely considered to be the team’s strength on that side of the football.
They’ll be led by senior defensive end Kentrell Lockett, 6-5, 255. Lockett tore his ACL early last season but is back as an all-SEC preseason candidate and is currently the active leader in the conference in tackles-for-loss with 23.5 on his career.
At the other end position, they return senior Wayne Dorsey, 6-6, 270. In the middle, they’ll field senior Justin Smith, 6-3, 301, along with junior college transfer Uriah Grant, 6-0, 300.
At linebacker, the Rebels will have to replace a lot of starting experience from a season ago. The lone return ring player with starting experience is junior Joel Knight, 5-9, 226, who will be starting at Sam linebacker.
Overall, the Rebels gave up a decent 152.8 yards per game a season ago.
“They’re a team that focuses on stopping the run first,” observed offensive lineman Braden Hansen. “They’re a lot like our defense in that way. They have some studs up front from what I’ve seen on film, and they’ll be a challenge. They’re a big and physical front with some great defensive ends. I’m excited to go against them.”
BYU should have some good success on the ground as it returns a very experienced offensive front along with its experienced running backs. The Cougars rushed for an average of 168 yards per game last year and will do well to match that number come Saturday.
The key match-up will be BYU stud left tackle Matt Reynolds, 6-6, 305, going up against Lockett, who is generally considered the Rebels' best defensive player.
BYU passing attack vs. Ole Miss
The Cougars ended strong last season through the air, with quarterback Jake Heaps settling in as the established starter. The paltry, un-BYU-like 198.4 yards per game through the air last season was mostly due to some incredible futility experienced early in the season.
“We’re way ahead of where we were last year entering the season,” Heaps said. “You can’t really even compare it. Guys are confident, we had good summer workouts and we had a very good fall camp. We’ll be putting up some good numbers I feel.”
Most of Heaps’ primary targets return from last season, including a key addition in redshirt freshman Ross Apo, 6-3, 202. Apo will join with last year's standout, Cody Hoffman, 6-4, 208, and senior McKay Jacobson, 5-11, 199, who looks to finish with his best season as a Cougar.
Up front, the Cougar offensive line was very effective in providing ample time for Heaps to throw the football last season as it came to a close. Overall, the Cougars gave up 21 sacks on the year, but again that number was frontloaded as the team improved in that area during the final half.
The Rebels' secondary returns three players with starting experience in senior cornerback Marcus Temple, 5-10, 190, senior safety Damien Jackson, 6-2, 210, and sophomore free safety Charles Sawyer, 5-11, 175.
Overall, the Rebels gave up 246.3 yards per game last season. They play a lot of man-coverage that could allow for some big gains by the Cougar wideouts.
“They play a lot of cover one, but they’re in man a lot with some zone thrown in on occasion,” observed Heaps. “Like it is in most games, if we’re successful in running the football, it will open up a lot of play-action opportunities and hopefully we can get some big-gainers down the field.”
This game will mark the debut for Apo, and fans should look for at least a couple of deep attempts to be thrown his way. The unsung hero on the BYU passing tree is Di Luigi, who led the team in receptions a season ago.
With the tight ends looking much improved entering the Ole Miss match-up, the Cougars shouldn’t have much trouble in throwing for more than 250 yards on Saturday.
BYU rush defense vs. Ole Miss
The Cougars will present three nose tackle types as their three down linemen. They’ll use a rotation consisting of very experienced players such as senior Romney Fuga, 6-2, 321, junior Eathyn Manumaleuna, 6-2, 294, and sophomore Graham Rowley, 6-4, 280.
They’ll go six deep at the very least on Saturday to help with the brutal heat that is expected. The rotating options look strong, with junior college transfer Hebron Fangupo, 6-1, 331, leading the way.
Ole Miss will feature senior running back Brandon Bolden, 5-11, 215, who is generally considered to be the top offensive option for the Rebels.
“They’re a smash-mouth type of offense from what we’ve seen,” said outside linebacker Jameson Frazier about Ole Miss. “They’ll pound it away at you on the inside and set up play-action, but they also have some guys that can get you on the edge. Their running back is very good, and they’ll be a challenge.”
The Rebel offensive front is the unquestioned strength of the entire team. It will return all five starters from a season ago and will be led by tackles Bobby Massie, 6-6, 315, and Bradley Sowell, 6-7, 320.
“They’re a very good and experienced offensive front,” said Eathyn Manumaleuna. “They’re a lot like our guys that we have on offense there.”
The Rebels rushed for 207.6 yards per game last year, which was third in the SEC. With all the question marks on offense, look for Ole Miss to try the ground game constantly as it looks to overpower the Cougar front.
BYU improved drastically with its run defense throughout the course of last season. It will face a stiff challenge given the brutal heat coupled with a very experienced Rebel offensive front.
Should the Cougars be able to hold the Rebels to under 200 yards rushing, it will go a long way in securing a win. If Ole Miss is able to control the clock while going for 200-plus yards, the game will likely go the other way.
BYU pass defense vs. Ole Miss
There are some questions with the Cougar secondary entering the season. It will be replacing three of its starters from a season ago.
The secondary is coming off of a successful fall camp that saw senior Corby Eason, 5-8, 173, and junior college transfer Preston Hadley, 6-0, 200, win the other starting spot on the boundary side.
Overall, the Cougar pass defense was stingier than normal in giving up 192,2 yards per game last season.
Meanwhile, the Rebels' passing game has a lot of question marks. Their quarterback position is hardly secure, with Barry Brunetti, 6-0, 215, being named as a tenuous starter by head coach Houston Nutt, who mentioned that he will use Zack Stoudt, 6-4, 217, as well.
At receiver, they’ll feature true freshman and prized recruit Donte Moncrief, 6-2, 217, sophomore Je-Mes Logan, 6-2, 190, and another true freshman in Tobias Singleton, 6-0, 193.
Ole Miss threw for just 192.2 yards per game last season, and it will be hard-pressed to eclipse 200 yards on Saturday. With two new quarterbacks and a lot of inexperience at wideout, the Cougars should be able to hold the Rebel passing game in check.
The worry is in over-the-top passes for big gains with effective use of play-action in this game. With the Rebels looking to pound the ball away on the ground, the Cougar secondary needs to remain watchful in defending against big-gainers.
“They have a lot of athletes on offense,” said Frazier. “It’s the SEC, so there are always good athletes there. It’s very important that we don’t allow them any big plays, and we need to watch for play-action continually.”
This game will be closer than most BYU fans expect. The heat, atmosphere and the athletes that Ole Miss will present on Saturday will pose a unique challenge for a Cougar team in unfamiliar environs.
It’s difficult to think that Ole Miss will account for many long scoring drives, but it will be the big plays that will keep it in the ballgame. BYU shouldn’t have trouble mounting an effective offensive attack that should let it drive the ball consistently.
Final score prediction: BYU 24, Ole Miss 20.