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Florida vs. Ole Miss, Preview: Gators seek early derailment of Lane Train

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Florida is poised to turn Lane Kiffin’s first game as Ole Miss head coach into one for the Rebels to forget.

LSU v Mississippi Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Do you know how the Florida Gators and Ole Miss Rebels are going to look this Sunday, six months into a pandemic that has infected at least some of the players on both teams and affected all of them? How both teams opening with SEC play is going to go in a year in which college football seems ready to spit out even more random outcomes than usual?

I will freely admit that I obviously don’t. But when I squint, here’s what I see as a means of preview about both sides of the ball and special teams.

When Florida has the ball

Florida running game vs. Ole Miss rush defense

Florida can’t rely on Lamical Perine in 2020, and exactly who the Gators will hand the ball off to most this fall is a question only time can answer. For now, the bruising Dameon Pierce and shiftier, injury-plagued Malik Davis share the top spot on Florida’s depth chart, and both are set to run behind a fortified offensive line that could hardly be worse at run blocking than its 2019 counterpart, which paved the way for the nation’s No. 107 rushing offense. Big plays by Perine and Pierce helped rescue Florida’s per-carry average from the pits, but Florida either succeeded or struggled on the ground in most games, with six outings of 5.0 yards per carry or better and seven of 4.0 or worse.

But the Rebels had a similar season of run defending, seeming to have a stout defense until it wasn’t. Ole Miss held four of its first six foes to rushing totals between 60 and 70 yards, with the exceptions being Memphis and Alabama, then sprung several leaks down the stretch, holding just one of its last six opponents (lowly New Mexico State) under 165 rushing yards. The Rebels also saw defensive linemen Benito Jones (10 tackles for loss) and Josiah Coatney (3.5 TFL) finish their careers last year.

This feels weird, but...

Slight edge: Florida

Florida passing game vs. Ole Miss pass defense

Ole Miss was No. 120 in pass defense last year — and that number improved substantially at season’s end, as the Rebels held New Mexico State and Mississippi State to a combined 235 passing yards in two of their last three games. Those games sandwiched a 489-yard, five-score strafing by Joe Burrow’s LSU, though, and came at the tail end of a campaign that saw the Rebels get bombed for 300+ passing yards on seven separate occasions. Ole Miss had just five picks in the last eight games of the year — though the Rebels did snag two in their high-scoring loss to LSU.

Florida may have lost four wide receivers of note from its 2019 roster, but the three big-time major returnees (Trevon Grimes, Jacob Copeland, and Kadarius Toney) and tight end and all-everything candidate Kyle Pitts should have plenty of green grass to occupy in Vaught-Hemingway. Kyle Trask is likely to have time to throw, too: While the Rebels racked up a respectable 33 sacks a year ago, Jones produced 5.5 of them, and linebacker Sam Williams spent much of the offseason away from the Rebels while facing a sexual battery charge that was ultimately dropped earlier this month.

Big edge: Florida

When Ole Miss has the ball

Ole Miss running game vs. Florida rush defense

Florida had the nation’s No. 8 run defense in 2019, allowing just two teams — LSU, of course, but also South Carolina? — to average more than 3.5 yards per carry. Losing stalwart run stopper David Reese II will probably hurt its ability to play soundly every down, but the Gators return most of the rest of the key figures from their run-stopping schemes, and are likely to play a more athletic linebacker — perhaps Ventrell Miller — in Reese’s role. If a defensive tackle rotation that is in some flux with Kyree Campbell mysteriously left off the Florida depth chart but claimed as “available” by Dan Mullen (and then added to a depth chart released on Saturday) is bolstered or boosted by five-star recruit Gervon Dexter, the Gators might be even closer to immovable on the ground.

Ole Miss should be a fine first task: The Rebels finished 2019 as the nation’s No. 9 rushing offense, with offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez accidentally unlocking a nigh indefensible option attack four games into the season by deploying the fleet John Rhys Plumlee at QB as an injury replacement; through those first four games, the Rebels hadn’t cracked five yards per carry, but their fifth nearly saw them do so against Alabama, and the sixth through 12th featured four such outings, all of which translated to 250 or more yards on the ground.

Lane Kiffin is not Rich Rodriguez, and is unlikely to be able to deploy Plumlee — who topped 1,000 yards on the ground despite playing in just nine games — in as devastating a fashion. But he’s also not stupid when it comes to getting the ball to his most explosive players, and Plumlee and fellow sophomore Jerrion Ealy both have big-play potential on every touch.

Edge: Even

Ole Miss passing game vs. Florida pass defense

While Plumlee is a terrifying runner, he’s also a terrible passer: He completed just better than 50 percent of his throws in 2019, failing to throw for 1,000 yards despite exactly 150 pass attempts. That’s certainly at least part of why erstwhile Florida commit Matt Corral, not Plumlee, was the Rebels’ starting quarterback to begin the season. But Corral wasn’t exactly stellar in his own right, bookending sharp performances against Arkansas and Southeastern Louisiana with stinkers against Memphis and Cal and getting injured in the latter game. When he did return to the field, it was as Plumlee’s backup — and though he at least cameoed in all of the Rebels’ final six games, their 1-5 record in those contests wasn’t really reflective of excellence on Corral’s part, as his finest outing came in garbage time in the one victory.

Florida returns two of the three starting corners and all of seemingly 30 safeties from a pass defense that purloined 12 picks in its first six games, then got utterly shelled by LSU and exploited by Georgia, Florida State, and Virginia. If its pass rush is more consistent in 2020 — a possibility, given that Brenton Cox could be a more athletic version of Jonathan Greenard in Todd Grantham’s defense and that whomever plays opposite Cox most often is liable to be healthier than Jabari Zuniga was in 2019 — then it has the coverage to capitalize on harried throwers.

Big edge: Florida

Special teams

Florida’s struggles to return punts in 2019 and Ole Miss’s struggles to prevent punt returns match up well for futility, but both teams were otherwise not particularly notable on returns a year ago. Florida’s kicking game should be very strong with the reliable Evan McPherson entering his junior year; Rebels kicker Luke Logan made just 11 of 19 field goals in 2019, also biffing three extra points.

Edge: Florida

Other factors

Ole Miss might have had a significant home-field advantage in other years in which a capacity crowd could have turned up in The Grove and moseyed over to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, but the smallish contingent likely to be in attendance should not scare the Gators.

And while Kiffin’s longstanding status as a Florida antagonist is on the line, Mullen and his staff simply have the better team — and are likely to relish the chance to trample an SEC newcomer while they absolutely can.

Edge: Florida