Ole Miss hosts Tennessee this week and, while we were early to the Ole Miss bandwagon (like 2013 early -- Ole Miss has been in the Top 25 of our College Football Power Rankings every week since the start of last season and opened this year in the top ten), expectations may have grown a little excessive for the Rebels. A closer game than sports books and fans expect is likely.
Mississippi is 6-0 straight-up and against-the-spread against the 20th ranked college football schedule to-date. While that is certainly impressive, the team's last two wins have come as underdogs and now they are more than two touchdown favorites in a conference game. Covering the spread will take a massive blowout victory over a decent SEC team.
The Rebels currently rank third in the AP Poll and second in our College Football Power Rankings. They are led mostly by what they do in the passing game, ranking fifth in passing efficiency offensively and third against the pass defensively. Much has been made about the fact that Ole Miss has as many interception return touchdowns as passing touchdowns allowed. That is noteworthy, but also highly difficult to sustain in any circumstance, especially going forward in the SEC. Ole Miss does struggle in a relative sense with the running game, ranking below average in run efficiency and just barely inside the top 25 (#23) against the run. This stands out considering both Ole Miss and Tennessee are balanced offensively (Tennessee passes 53% and Ole Miss runs 53% - whereas Ole Miss' most recent opponent, Texas A&M, throws the ball 60%+).
There is no questioning that Ole Miss has an elite college football team and this pick is not as much about the Rebels as it is the Volunteers and the overall expectation for how this game will be played. Tennessee is 3-3 straight-up and 2-3 against-the-spread (with one FCS opponent) and has taken on the sixth toughest schedule in the nation. The Volunteers rank 28th in our most recent College Football Power Rankings. Even though that is just the tenth best rank in the SEC, it still puts them among the nation's more talented teams overall. Tennessee ranks 22nd overall defensively and is in the top 40 against the run and the pass. In fact, both of these teams rank within the top seven in the country in strength-of-schedule-adjusted pass defense.
Tennessee also has one of the youngest Power 5 conference teams, with 11 (half) of their offensive and defensive starters either sophomores or freshmen. As would be expected, the team has improved as of late, including covering a 17 point spread in a loss by just three points to Georgia in their first game after a bye week.
Looking at the spread of 17 favoring Ole Miss and a total of just 46.5 points, sports books are projecting a final score of essentially 32-15, which is a lot of points to score on a top ten pass defense. Ole Miss' only game against a top 40 defense this season took place at home against Alabama two weeks ago. In that game, the Rebels scored just 23 points, 13 of which came in the last six minutes of the upset victory. With two very good defenses in this game and emerging young and underrated talent on Tennessee, this should remain competitive.
According to 50,000 games played by the Predictalator at PredictionMachine.com, Ole Miss wins 72.6% of the time over Tennessee and by an average score of 29.9-16.4. As 17 point underdogs keeping the score within two touchdowns, the Tennessee Volunteers cover the spread 54.9% of the time, which is strong enough to justify a $26 wager from a normal $50 player. The total (46.5) in this low scoring, defensive battle, is appropriate and not playable.
Additional note: We really wanted to break down Notre Dame @ Florida State in this section this week, but there is no posted total for that game as of yet given the uncertainty surrounding Jameis Winston and other FSU offensive players. So, here is a bonus prediction assuming Winston, Rashad Greene and Karlos Williams all play: Florida State 33 - Notre Dame 23.