By Casey Gisclair
*Editors Note: This is the sixth part of a six-part series previewing LSU’s upcoming football season opponents.
After going back-to-back with Alabama and Arkansas in early November, the schedule doesn’t get much easier for LSU down the stretch.
The final two weeks of the schedule are brutal for the Tigers, as they will travel to face Ole Miss on November 21 before closing with Texas A&M on November 28. All three teams involved in this two-game triangle expect to be competing for the SEC Western Division title at the end of the season.
When coach Hugh Freeze got to Ole Miss in 2012, he made the Rebels a major player on the recruiting trail.
Some of Freeze’s top early signees are now veterans, and the Rebels think they’re ready to rise.
Expectations are high around Oxford this fall, as Ole Miss looks to build on last season’s 9-4 campaign. Freeze said at SEC Media Days that he thinks the Rebels are a sleeper, adding that he believes this could be the best team he’s coached in his four seasons with the university.
“We obviously play in a conference that is not going backwards, that is very difficult and in which every team can beat you and can win the West, and even the crossover games are difficult as well,” Freeze said. “But we believe that if we can stay healthy and get a break here or there, we will be a factor in who decides the SEC West.”
For the first time in a while, Ole Miss will have a new quarterback.
Bo Wallace is gone—a graduation that actually pleases some fans in Oxford, who never quite appreciated the fact that Wallace was statistically one of the most productive quarterbacks in the conference over the past few seasons.
With Wallace gone, the Rebels’ quarterback race includes sophomores Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade and junior college transfer Chad Kelly.
Freeze has not yet tipped his hand on anyone so far this summer, touting that all three guys could see action in early-season games if things in summer practices remain tight.
“I don’t think there’s a fair sampling yet for any of the three,” Freeze said. “And that’s why I have not put, and I won’t put myself in a box on when that decision will be made. I think all three have earned the right to compete for it.”
If Ole Miss gets sound play at quarterback, the Rebels can contend for an SEC title.
Ole Miss returns a slew of lineman, halfback Jaylen Walton and elite receiver Laquon Treadwell, who was turning heads in 2014 before a gruesome injury to his leg versus Auburn.
Freeze said his All-Everything receiver is back now and is better than ever.
“All signs point to him being fully recovered,” Freeze said. “He even looks a little different. I think he lost a little weight, feels a little more explosive. I’m anxious to get pads on him and see how he responds when the ball’s a little high and in traffic.”
On defense, Ole Miss should be lethal, returning several starters off a group that was No. 1 in the country in total defense a year ago.
Two of those returnees are brothers Denzel and Robert Nkemdiche—players who figure to be in the running for every national award this fall. Another key starter back is explosive linebacker C.J. Johnson.
“We were very good at defense last year,” Freeze said. “Hopefully with the front we have returning and the replacements we had for a few key losses, we’ll repeat that.”
2014 record: 9-4
Conference: Southeastern Conference (Western Division)
Spring Game Standout: Ole Miss’s quarterbacks were awful in the team’s spring game. In fact, the whole team’s offense sputtered and struggled throughout the day. Transfer quarterback Chad Kelly was perhaps the most effective of the bunch, completing 9-of-19 passes for 104 yards and a touchdown. The others had little-to-no luck at all.
Guy you may know: Ole Miss receiver Laquon Treadwell is one of the best players in the country. He may be coming off an injury, but Treadwell is still a player that opposing defensive coordinators will scheme against and pay attention to throughout the season.
Fun fact: For as competitive as the SEC is, Les Miles and Hugh Freeze have found a way to be friends. Freeze confessed last summer that his 15-year-old daughter Ragan loves the Mad Hatter and all of his quirky ways. Both coaches have said multiple times in interviews that they admire and respect one another’s coaching abilities.
After taking on Ole Miss, LSU will face possibly its new biggest rival—Texas A&M.
Of course, LSU football historians know that the Aggies and Tigers have long been at one another’s throats – a rivalry that dates back several decades. But after a cooling off period in the mid-1990s and throughout the 2000s, the intensity of the big game is back in a big way.
Of course, the teams are conference rivals, which is interesting enough on its own, but the Aggies spilled the intensity of that rivalry and made it overflow this offseason when coach Kevin Sumlin poached longtime defensive coordinator John Chavis away from Les Miles’ staff.
Chavis will try and restore an Aggie defense that has been historically bad the past few seasons—a unit that is the biggest reason why Texas A&M hasn’t been able to compete for championships under Sumlin.
The head coach said he’s thrilled to have Chavis, touting that he, combined with an experienced roster, are among the bright spots for the Aggies this fall.
“We get it. We struggled,” Sumlin said when asked of his previous defensive woes. “It’s a great fit for us and a great fit for him. He was ready for a new challenge. We were in the market, obviously, and here’s a guy who’s got a tremendous track record in the SEC and recently in the SEC West… He’s going to do a terrific job here.”
The defense Chavis inherits in year one of his regime has returnees, but that may not necessarily be a good thing, because those returnees were severely outmatched last season.
The Aggies were brutal on the defensive side of the ball in 2014, allowing 28 or more points in seven out of eight SEC games. The one outlier? That would be the team’s 23-17 loss to LSU.
Sumlin acknowledged that it might take some time, but he believes that the Aggies have found their man. The coach said the team’s players believe that, as well.
“The buy-in for our players has been exceptional,” Sumlin said. “I’m as excited as any year that I’ve ever coached.”
Offensively, the Aggies will start Kyle Allen under center after he completed 118-of-192 passes for 1,322 yards and 16 touchdowns last year. Texas A&M started the season with a bang last fall with sophomore Kenny Hill under center, but he struggled mightily down the stretch and is now at TCU.
Sumlin said he believes Allen will break out in his sophomore season.
“He’s had nothing but confidence in the offseason,” Sumlin said.
The Aggies spread attack also returns halfback Tra Carson and an assortment of receiving options like Josh Reynolds, Speedy Noil and Ricky Seals-Jones.
All of the skill options are meaningless if the Aggies don’t block better along the offensive line. Sumlin said he challenged all of his linemen to be more physical throughout the season. He called line play the factor that will decide whether Texas A&M is average, good or great in 2015.
“We need to be more physical,” Sumlin said. “We’ve revamped the ways that we practice, and I think that we will have a different attitude about our football team this fall.”
2014 record: 8-5
Conference: Southeastern Conference (Western Division)
Spring Game Standout: None. The Aggies are one of two SEC teams (Kentucky) to not play a spring football game. Only six FBS schools in the country didn’t have a spring game in 2015.
Guy you may know: Louisiana fans are very familiar with Aggies receiver Speedy Noil. A one-time Pelican State prep standout, Noil passed over his home-state school and inked with Texas A&M. Don’t panic just yet, LSU fans. The Noil honeymoon in College Station may be over. He’s been suspended throughout the offseason for violations of team rules.
Fun fact: In a bowl season that wasn’t exactly the brightest moment in the history of the SEC West, the Aggies were one of the lone bright spots. Texas A&M trumped West Virginia 45-37 in the Liberty Bowl to clinch an 8-win season.