On paper, BYU opens the season with quite a tough stretch with games at Ole Miss and at Texas. But are they tough in reality? Let us check in with the Rebels as we begin to size up some of the matchups.
The Rebels are coming off a disappointing 2010, in which they went 4-8. Oxford is a wonderful place to tailgate, but did not exactly strike fear into the opposition last season. Ole Miss dropped four home games, including the stunning loss to FCS Jacksonville State in the opener, followed by a loss to Vanderbilt in its next home game.
The offseason has already produced its share of drama. Their best defensive player, linebacker D.T. Shackelford is out for the game after injuring his knee at the end of spring practice. His projected replacement, Clarence Jackson, was just dismissed from the team, along with reserve defensive end Delvin Jones. Ole Miss still has no starting quarterback, with competition between redshirt junior Randall Mackey, West Virginia transfer Barry Brunetti and junior college transfer Zack Stoudt ongoing. Mackey has a slight edge but has no playing experience.
BYU should be the favorite going in, but it is never easy to play on the road at an SEC opponent. Just ask Fresno State, which got whipped 55-38 in Oxford last season. Here are two matchups that should go in the Cougars' favor:
Passing game. Ole Miss is inexperienced and small in the secondary. This was a unit that was a problem last season, ranking No. 103 in the nation in pass defense. Of the four starters on its post-spring depth chart, only one is taller than 6 feet -- strong safety Damien Jackson, who also happens to be one of their top returning players. BYU has the size advantage with big receivers Cody Hoffman (6-foot-4) and Ross Apo (6-3), and this could be the perfect opportunity to show off the big arm of Jake Heaps and get the once high-flying BYU offense back in gear. With the linebacker issues for Ole Miss, the Cougars could also get their tight ends more involved, something that should be a priority this season. Plenty of depth there with Devin Mahina, Marcus Mathews and Austin Holt.
Matt Reynolds vs. Kentrell Lockett. We shall see where Lockett lines up this season, but he did start 13 games in 2009 at right defensive end, where he had 13 pressures and five sacks. A preseason All-SEC pick in 2010, Lockett was granted a sixth year of eligibility after missing nearly all of 2010 with a knee injury. He sat out spring practice while he continued his rehab but is expected back in the fall. Reynolds is projected to be a first-round pick after deciding to return to BYU for his senior season, and has done a first-rate job of protecting his quarterbacks.
Here is the most intriguing matchup of the game: Ole Miss offensive line vs. BYU defensive front. The Rebels' offensive line is one of the strengths of the team. Seven players have started at least two games, which should no doubt help as Ole Miss starts a new quarterback. Because of the inexperience at quarterback, you can expect BYU to try to increase the pressure, which means the offensive line has to be exceptionally strong. BYU has depth here, and tackle Romney Fuga is expected back so this is no doubt a key matchup to watch.
For more on the Rebels, here is the Ole Miss spring wrap from our friends at the SEC blog.