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Now it gets interesting: Texas A&M a real measure of the new OM

COLUMN: At 3-2 through five games, everything’s gone according to the script for Ole Miss, no matter what script you’re working from. Pundits and fans who predicted results as varied as 3-8 to 7-5 had the Rebels losing to national powers Texas and Alabama, and taking care of business against inferior non-conference competition in Central Arkansas, UTEP and Tulane.

Now comes the entirely unpredictable chapter of Hugh Freeze’s maiden voyage. Over the next three games, Ole Miss will play three Western Division opponents (Texas A&M this Saturday, followed by Auburn at home and Arkansas in Little Rock) in three theoretically winnable games. The Hogs have completely imploded, Auburn has found no offense and is susceptible to the kind of up-tempo attack Freeze has brought to Oxford, and A&M? Well… The Aggies’ near future might be just as much an enigma as the Rebels.

With a hot young quarterback in Johnny Manziel and a proven winner in new head coach Kevin Sumlin, the Aggies have clearly found more success as SEC freshman than fellow newcomer Mizzou, but they also haven’t faced the kinds of defenses (Georgia’s aggressive 3-4, South Carolina’s top pass rush) the Tigers have. Short of a home loss to a slowly improving Florida, the Aggies haven’t faced a truly “SEC” type of top defense this season. They won’t get that in Ole Miss, but the Rebel unit looked noticeably improved playing against Alabama’s run-heavy attack last week.

Had A&M’s opener against Louisiana Tech — possibly the non-AQ Boise State darkhorse of 2012 — not been postponed due to weather, we might have a better handle on them. As of now, they haven’t gone on the road in conference, they’ve throttled two bad non-conference opponents in SMU and South Carolina State and measuring your worth against the Razorbacks looks more and more futile by the week.

Meanwhile, the Rebels looked like a better football team (especially on defense) between losing efforts against Alabama and Texas, but have seemingly grown sloppier in handing out turnovers as the weeks have gone by (they’re now 98th nationally with a minus-5 margin).

To win the game, Ole Miss will have to take care of the football and apply their defensive improvements against Bama to A&M’s night-and-day different spread option.

This will be the strongest passing attack the Rebels have seen since Texas, who torched Ole Miss’ secondary. On the fumbling front, time of possession will be crucial between these two freshman spread option offenses. Keeping a fresh defense and Manziel on the bench and out of rhythm is crucial.

Still, there’s no telling how effective the freshman Manziel, the first-year coach Sumlin and the newcomer Aggies can truly be this season. They entered 2012 as a bigger question mark than the Rebels, and just like Ole Miss, to this point they’ve shown potential without providing a signature win to inspire national respect.

There’s a potential for a defensive hemorrhage against Sumlin’s aggressive attack. There’s also a chance Freeze is able to return fire against an A&M defense that hasn’t seen its own style of offense in an opponent this year.

Of all the games in this debut of the “new” era of Ole Miss football, none are as hard to predict as this Saturday’s.

(Steven Godfrey can be contacted at sgodjr@gmail.com.) (October 4, 2012, Page 9)

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