Game Time: 8 p.m. ET
How to watch online: WatchESPN
Odds: Florida State opened as a 6-point favorite, though in some locations it was roughly between 4 and 5. At last glance, it wavered between 5.5 and 6 points depending on the location.
Ole Miss travels to Orlando in a “neutral-site” showdown with Florida State on Labor Day Night. Here are three things to look out for:
Chad Kelly back in the spotlight
Kelly is the best quarterback in the SEC and that can’t be overlooked, even with another year of glaring quarterback issues across the league. Some may play down that fact, but what you cannot deny is the skill and leadership he brings to the Ole Miss offense. Put aside the school records that Kelly posted in 2015, and focus on the competitive nature that he possess. Kelly is a gamer, he’s got chutzpah, and all of the cliches in the book. That will need to show out on Monday night if the Rebels are to win a game few at this moment are expecting them to win. The most important factor for Kelly, on Labor Day night, is his ability to take care of the football. For all of the touchdowns that he threw last season, Kelly still had a propensity to make questionable decisions with the football throwing 13 interceptions on the season.
Given the question marks still in the running game, Kelly will have no choice but to be keen with his decision-making versus the ‘Noles. While Monday will be filled with overreactions from the weekend, Tuesday could boast it’s own if Kelly performs near the level he did a year ago. A strong performance against the highly-touted Seminole defense would enter Kelly’s name into the Heisman fold after a weekend that saw many of the predicted “front-runners” not perform to their projected level.
How the Ole Miss offensive line stacks up
Yes, quarterback is the most important position in football. That being said, football games, particularly in the SEC, are won and lost in the trenches. Ole Miss has won quite a few games over the past several years because of the guys up front. Laremy Tunsil was one of the nations best at the left tackle position, but he departs, along with the four other starters on the Rebel offensive line from a year ago. Facing a stout Seminole front that features talented defensive end duo Josh Sweat and DeMarcus Walker likely has kept Hugh Freeze up at night when his mind hasn’t been on non-football issues.
Despite losing all five starters, the Rebel offensive front offers more experience that anticipated. Senior center Robert Conyers started five of the teams first six games in 2015 before being out for the season. Sophomore guards Jordan Sims and Javon Patterson started four and six games, respectively, in their true freshman seasons. The nations number one rated tackle recruit, Greg Little enters the frame and should fill in to Tunsil’s vacated blindside role from Day One. The pressure will be on for an inexperienced group, but given how Freeze has recruited along the offensive line I have a good feeling about the progress that has been made throughout the summer.
Landsharks vs Deondre Francois
I attended a baseball game between North Carolina and Florida State in the spring of 2013. Jameis Winston started for the ‘Noles in left field, striking out in two of his at-bats, the last of which a gentleman in the crowd shouted, “It’s okay you can still win the Heisman.” Not sure Winston heard that, but he ended up winning the trophy en route to leading FSU to a national championship season as a redshirt freshman. Francois may not play baseball or carry the potential Heisman hype, but the comparisons to Winston have been thrown around since spring practice ended. Like Winston, Francois will earn his first career start on Labor Day night.
Unlike Winston, who faced a Pittsburgh team that finished 7-6, Francois will enter the national limelight in front of a partisan Seminole crowd against an SEC foe that has come up a few plays short of a potential playoff berth each of the last two seasons. The Rebel defense, preferably known as the Landsharks, has had more to do with the rebirth of the program under Freeze than any unit. The likelihood of stopping Seminole All-American running back Dalvin Cook is unlikely, thus their ability to put pressure on Francois will be paramount in keeping the FSU offense at bay.
Defensive ends Marquis Haynes and Fadol Brown each possess the power to hold Francois in the pocket and the speed to track him down outside of it. The experience of secondary mainstays Tony Conner and Tony Bridges could factor into disrupting FSU wide receivers, who have their own point to prove, along with disguising coverages to confuse the rookie. Francois is talented, but he faces a heck of a challenge in his debut against the Landsharks.
So, what happens?
Florida State has been dubbed a playoff contender all offseason. The only question was would a quarterback emerge that was good enough to elevate FSU to those expectations. Sean Maguire missed the entire spring with a foot injury and later had surgery again in fall camp, in turn handing the starting job to Francois, who many have dubbed the man who will lead FSU back to a primetime slot on New Years’ Eve.
Ole Miss has faced an NCAA storm since the spring and has been itching to get back on the field to prove that this program is more than the uber recruits of Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell, and Tunsil.
Freeze has recruited with the best of them but in the end of the day its Alabama, Ohio State, Florida State and everybody else when it comes to the recruiting trail. Kelly keeps the Rebels in it, but Florida State is too talented across the board for a rebuilt Rebel team.
Prediction: Florida State 30, Ole Miss 24