#16 Oklahoma State v. #12 Ole Miss
Mercedes-Benz Superdome — New Orleans, LA
January 1, 2016 — 8:30 pm Eastern (ESPN)
Why You Should Watch
Setting aside the College Football Playoff national championship game at the Fiesta Bowl site in Glendale on January 11, this is the last of the New Year’s Six bowl games. It is the perfect prelude to the last Saturday of college football you will get to enjoy for the next eight months, so savor it… after this, there are just five games left including that championship. To conclude your first day of 2016, an iconic venue will host one of the oldest bowl games in operation, a staple of the New Orleans community that is entering its ninth decade of operation. It served as one of the CFP semifinal sites last season, but its “mere” position as one of the New Year’s Six leftovers is mere trivia that does nothing to dull the quality of this bowl both on an annual basis and specifically given this year’s matchup.
Now able to exercise its affiliation with the Big 12 and SEC for the first time, the nightcap provides a solid battle between top-16 teams that threatened for their respective conference titles. One is continuing a seven-year streak of playing in major bowl games in odd-numbered seasons, while the other will be aiming for redemption after getting blown out in their showcase opportunity on New Year’s Eve 2014. For Oklahoma State, this will be the Cowboys’ first trip to the Sugar Bowl in seven decades; their opponent, Ole Miss, hasn’t been in the game since 1970. Two teams that have played in other big games now get the chance to play in their respective conferences’ preeminent postseason showdown outside the CFP-affiliated bowl games.
What Each Team Brings to the Table
Oklahoma State Cowboys
The 10-game winning streak to start the season by Oklahoma State was largely viewed with suspicion by pollsters, finally reaching the top five only after their ninth win. Of course, the Cowboys did drop their last two to Baylor and Oklahoma to miss out on the playoff, but a long-awaited return to the Sugar Bowl will serve as a solid consolation prize. The Pokes were among the top 10 teams in scoring offense, with Mason Rudolph and J.W. Walsh both showing strong leadership when under center. What Oklahoma State lacked was any sort of balance; while the passing game ranked seventh nationally, the run game was 108th in the country after compiling just 132 yards per game on the ground.
Like many other Big 12 teams, Mike Gundy’s crew was far better on offense than when the defense took the field. Defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah was a bright spot, finishing fourth in FBS in sacks with 13 quarterback takedowns, but it had little impact on a passing defense that allowed nearly 250 passing yards per game. Opponents had little trouble converting third and fourth downs, and were likely to take points away when they reached Oklahoma State’s red zone. While it was prone to bending and breaking, though, the defense also was among the 10 best nationally in takeaways, averaging 2.25 turnovers gained per game to tie for fifth in the country in turnover margin.
Gundy will certainly hope that he doesn’t have to lean too heavily on the Cowboys’ special-teams units, either. Oklahoma State was mediocre on both kick and punt returns, finishing in the bottom half of FBS in both categories. Junior placekicker Ben Grogan connected on just 14 of his 18 field-goal attempts. Freshman punter Zach Sinor averaged just over 40 yards per punt, though the Oklahoma State punt coverage unit was able to limit opponents to just two yards per return. The Pokes special teams are unlikely to seriously flip field position, neither a weapon nor too much of a liability.
Ole Miss Rebels
Though they were the only team to defeat Alabama in the regular season for the second straight year, Ole Miss once again missed out on a chance to play for the SEC title after dropping league games to Florida and Arkansas. The Rebels saw their offensive numbers improve drastically under transfer quarterback Chad Kelly, as Ole Miss finished 10th nationally in passing offense and scored over 40 points per game. What they lacked was a consistent ground threat, with leading rusher Jaylen Walton racking up fewer than 700 yards from the backfield. Depending on a boom-or-bust passing game to generate offense, the Rebels were among the 10 worst teams in the country in terms of time of possession.
Just as the offense was improving, however, the defense regressed from last year’s dominant figures. After leading the country in scoring defense in 2014, the Rebels allowed their opponents to score a full touchdown more per game this season. The Landsharks were still strong against opponents on the ground, but their passing defense allowed even more yards per game than Oklahoma State’s mediocre unit. And when opposing offenses reached the Ole Miss red zone, they were 11 percent more likely to walk away with points than they were last year.
Hugh Freeze’s team is just as weak as their Sugar Bowl opponent when it comes to special teams as well, if not even worse. The Rebels were the fifth-worst team in the country in kickoff return average, while their punt return unit fared little better as they also ranked outside the top 100 nationally. Punting was a bright spot, as Ole Miss finished in the top 35 in net punting average. Sophomore kicker Gary Wunderlich, meanwhile, was just 17-of-22 on his field goal attempts. Like their counterparts, Ole Miss would do well to keep the game out of the hands of their special teams units.
What is Likely to Happen
Well, Ole Miss will certainly be hoping that their next game against a top Big 12 opponent doesn’t end up like their last one, when TCU took the Rebels out behind the woodshed in a 42-3 Peach Bowl drubbing last year. The Rebels are entering the Sugar Bowl on a two-game winning streak, while Oklahoma State lost its last two to finish the regular season. With Freeze’s squad coming in with the momentum, it is little wonder that Vegas has set them as seven-point favorites. But when you look at the numbers, these two teams are not that far separated from one another.
Several questions remain for both teams. Will it be Rudolph, who sat out the Bedlam game with an ankle injury, or Walsh who starts at quarterback for Oklahoma State? How will an already-regressed Ole Miss defense look without standout lineman Robert Nkemdiche, who was suspended for his last game as a Rebel after being arrested for marijuana possession and has declared for the NFL draft as a result? And which team will break its long drought away from New Orleans with a New Year’s victory? The Rebel defense will have something to prove, and if Walsh starts for the Cowboys (a likely possibility with Rudolph still doubtful to be fully fit by January 1) it will negate many of the passing advantages that Oklahoma State has over Ole Miss. Unfortunately for Gundy, his dual-threat quarterback’s game plays right to the Rebel strengths. On the other end look for Kelly and the Ole Miss offense to find space to work the ball to Laquon Treadwell and the other speedy, physical receivers. If the Rebels show up motivated and ready to prove themselves after last year’s drubbing, they have the larger pool of talent to deal with player absences.
Ole Miss 38, Oklahoma State 27
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