What's at Stake: A legitimate claim as a contender in the SEC West. It's difficult to place this game, because it will not give us an idea as to who will be the biggest challenger to Alabama -- both Ole Miss and LSU will have played the Tide by the time late November rolls around. But the winner could still very well determine who emerges from the West -- especially if it creates the kind of three-way gridlock that wreaked havoc in the Big XII South last season. But it is still the showdown between the two challengers; the winner of this game could end up locking up the division or merely winning a higher spot in the bowl order. Which one it is really depends on which preview magazine you like.
Where It Falls on LSU's Schedule: You should really have this memorized by now; after all, our last two installments have concerned the Bayou Bengals. At this point, we'll have a pretty good feel for whether 2008 was a fluke or a warning; the only game left on the slate is a nonetheless tricky showdown with Arkansas.
Where It Falls on Ole Miss' Schedule: The Rebels will have mostly cruised through one of the easier schedules in the league: at Memphis, vs. Southeastern Louisiana, at South Carolina, at Vanderbilt, vs. Alabama, vs. UAB, vs. Arkansas, at Auburn, vs. Northern Arizona and vs. Tennessee. The Alabama game is the most severe test in there by far, and the East rotation shapes up about as nicely as you could ask. The Rebels' final game is at Mississippi State -- meaning where they stand at the end of this game will be a strong indicator of where they'll end up in the standings.
What Happened This Past Season: Ole Miss proved itself to be the second-best team in the West. Jevan Snead was 16-of-25 for 274 yards and 2 TDs, the Rebels defense sacked LSU's quarterbacks four times and held the Tigers to just 37 rushing yards on 29 carries. It took Ole Miss about seven minutes in the middle of the second quarter to go from a 7-3 lead to a 21-3 advantage; by then, the final score of 31-13 was pretty much academic.
What Will Decide the Game This Year: Line play. Ole Miss lost its best player on each line with the depatures of Michael Oher and Peria Jerry to the NFL. Most of the starters are back, but the loss of the Oher is the No. 1 reason to doubt the Ole Miss hype this year. LSU's defensive line also loses several key pieces, including Tyson Jackson and Kirston Pittman. Sack leader Rahim Alem returns; one of his eight quarterback stops came against Snead. The offensive line is anyone's guess. One of the biggest reasons Ole Miss won this game last year was dominant play by the defensive line. The trenches will also play a significant role in determining who wins in 2009.
LSU Will Probably Win If ... Jordan Jefferson has time to throw and Charles Scott has room to run -- see above. Ole Miss' offense might not ring up more than 400 yards, as it did last year, but the Tigers will have to be able to score some to win this game.
Ole Miss Will Probably Win If ... The skill players can perform. Snead, Dexter McCluster and Shay Hodge have a legitimate shot at being the core of the most dynamic offense in the West -- if they get the protection they need and the contributions of other players on offense.
Conclusion: I get tired of saying I'm not exactly sold on LSU this year -- but I'm not. I don't think either team will win this game by 18 points this year; LSU is significantly better, and how much Ole Miss has improved is an open question. But since the strongest argument I've heard for LSU winning this game is the one sports cliche I would ban if I had a choice -- "Ole Miss won't sneak up on anybody this year" -- I'm going with the Rebels.