BATON ROUGE, La. — On paper, or on the screen of whatever device you are using to read this, this is as good as college football gets.
An offense that can’t be stopped — 39.7 points per game worth — goes up against a defense that plays second-fiddle to none, allowing just 14 points per game. An intense interim coach trying to secure his dream job must go through the program that once fired him. Or you could take away any of those elements and it is still LSU-Ole Miss in any given year.
Plus it kicks off at 8 p.m. local time in Tiger Stadium, where the after-effects of untold hours of pregame partying are likely to be felt. And possibly smelled.
Alabama and Texas A&M might be the Game of the Week both in the SEC and nationally, but as far as pure college football fun goes, you can’t do much better than the Tigers and Rebels duking it out as Saturday night creeps closer to Sunday morning.
Here’s a position-by-position breakdown:
LSU: Danny Etling continues to improve as he is entrusted to do more with the LSU offense. While he’s still a game-manager, his touchdown connections with Malachi Dupre against Southern Miss showed he is also capable of game-breaking plays.
Ole Miss: Chad Kelly is the best quarterback in the SEC, period. Not only can he sling it like his Uncle Jim, but he’s a sneaky-good runner with an average of 4.1 yards per carry. Leading an offense to 43 points against Alabama is no small feat, and he’s done it.
Edge: Ole Miss
LSU: Derrius Guice became the fastest running back to 1,000 career yards in LSU history… and returns to his previous role as the Tigers’ No. 2 running back this week with Leonard Fournette’s return. We will see both get the ball Saturday against one of the SEC’s worst run defenses.
Ole Miss: Akeem Judd and Eugene Brazley are both capable of popping big ones if defenses are paying too much attention to the Rebel passing game, which they often are. But this isn’t a very close matchup.
LSU: Tight ends have found their way back into the passing game thanks to new offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger. And Malachi Dupre busted out of his early season slump in a big way against Southern Miss. Plus, D.J. Chark is proving to be a capable weapon in his own right. Things are suddenly looking up for this group.
Ole Miss: If he isn’t the best tight end in the country, Evan Engram is in the conversation. He’s Kelly’s favorite target — the leading receiver in the SEC — and capable of hurting the Tigers much like Wisconsin’s Tony Fumagali did in the opener with seven catches for 100 yards.
Then there are the actual receivers themselves, led by the tremendously named Damore’ea Stringfellow (6-foot-2 is just tall enough for his surname to be an accurate adjective). Four Rebel wideouts have at least 200 yards, making this LSU’s biggest challenge yet.
Edge: Ole Miss
LSU: The banged-up bunch will start to take its expected shape as left guard Will Clapp returns from a shoulder injury that kept him out of the last game-and-a half. That in turn moves Maea Teuhema out to right tackle and Ethan Pocic back to center after venturing outside last week. Despite missing starting linemen for most of its last two games, the LSU offense had its best performances of the year against Missouri and Southern Miss.
Ole Miss: Injuries haven’t been an issue for this bunch, all five of whom have started all six games. But as Arden Key pointed out this week, there is no longer a Laremy Tunsil in the group, either. The Rebels rank 54th nationally with an average of 2 sacks allowed per game, while LSU’s defense is 17th with 3 sacks per game.
LSU: Defensive tackle Travonte Valentine has slid all the way down to third-team, but that’s largely because everyone else is doing such a good job of carrying their weight, particularly Lewis Neal and Davon Godchaux.
Ole Miss: Defensive end Marquis Haynes is second in school history with 21.5 career sacks, and tackle Breeland Speaks can get into a quarterback’s face quickly with 7 hurries. But the Rebels are weak against the run, allowing 212 yards per game.
LSU: This is the position at which LSU possesses the greatest advantage in this game. Kendall Beckwith is dominant inside, and Arden Key makes fools out of good players on a weekly basis.
Ole Miss: The Rebels’ greatest struggle this year is on the second level of defense. Derrius Guice might literally fake someone out of their jock on a cutback.
LSU: Jamal Adams needed just one play to flip the Southern Miss game on its head. He’s capable of doing something like that every week. But this group will be tested in a way it has not this season against Kelly and his talented receiving corps.
Ole Miss: There is talent back there, but these guys are asked to do a lot thanks to Mississippi’s struggles up front. Ole Miss ranks 11th in the league with 233.7 yards allowed per game and doesn’t get enough takeaways to compensate, ranking 11th with five interceptions.
LSU: Donte Jackson is really, really close to breaking a kickoff for a touchdown. In fact he already would have if not for a holding penalty that wiped it out. The Tigers have the talent to make special teams a strength if they can cut out the mistakes.
Ole Miss: The Rebels allow the most yards per punt return in the SEC, which might come as interesting information to Tre’Davious White. They were second in the league in punt return defense a year ago.
LSU: Coach O needs two more SEC wins to match his three-year total at Ole Miss, which would make the taste of defeat all the more difficult for Rebel fans to swallow.
Ole Miss: There’s no questioning Hugh Freeze’s skills as a recruiter (even though the NCAA has some questions about his precise methods) or his offensive acumen. He has the program at the highest level it has been in the post-(pick your) Manning Era. But I’m also an old fart who doesn’t think a defense can succeed at the speed Ole Miss runs its offense.
Edge: Ole Miss on basis of sample size.
It’s campaign season, as you’re probably all too aware. And this game is essentially a must-win for Orgeron if he wants to make it out of the primaries and into the general election as LSU’s next full-time head coach.
Luckily for him, his team’s strengths — defense and a running game — are the ones that usually lead to victory.
Hickey’s Pick: LSU 31, Ole Miss 23