If you thought Memphis was the biggest game on the Ole Miss schedule, well, California says, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
Indeed, it was an important season opener, but the most important thing in the first two weeks was a split, and the Rebels have achieved that.
There remains a path to a bowl game for the rebuilding Rebels, but it’s a path with alarmingly low margin for error. It’s a path that includes a win against Cal.
Look, this isn’t rocket surgery. (Pun intended)
Ole Miss has restocked its scholarship numbers, but those new scholarship recipients are young and inexperienced. Just having those numbers hasn’t made up for the talent drain along the offensive line.
At some other positions, the depth at linebacker and running back that coaches talked about in the offseason, it has been visible.
Still, the Rebels have been forced to reach into that linebacker depth sooner than they’d like to with the loss of junior captain Mohamed Sanogo.
What you have through a 2-1 start is a team whose play will suffer greatly if it’s not on top of the mental game … as shown against Southeastern Louisiana.
After two straight very good defensive performances to start the season, the FCS opponent was a step backward.
“A work in progress” is the cliché’ that most fits, and a work-in-progress team this season isn’t going to win at Alabama or LSU.
But it might against No. 23 Cal.
The Bears have a talented and experienced secondary, but they’ve at times been vulnerable against the run, which is what Ole Miss does 65 percent of the time this season.
On offense, Cal is not a great passing team which could help an Ole Miss secondary that isn’t a very good coverage unit right now.
There are matchups in this game that the Rebels can exploit if they are focused and prepared.
That includes the Rebels’ two new coordinators, both former Pac-12 head coaches.
On offense, Rich Rodriguez has to help an average offensive line not come unhinged at the sight of shifting defensive fronts. The Rebels ran for 220 yards last week in spite of Southeastern’s 11 tackles for loss. Cut that figure in half, and it’s conceivable the Rebels could have been around 275 yards.
Mike MacIntyre has to have his defensive backs regain the closing speed they showed against Memphis and Arkansas.
A bowl game would be a tremendous accomplishment for a program trying to further distance itself from NCAA sanctions.
For that to happen there’s a lot riding on a late September game to stay on the path.