The last time Mississippi visited The Swamp, the Rebels shocked No. 4 Florida, spurring Tim Tebow’s immortalized “Promise” speech.
Seven years later, No. 3 Ole Miss is a seven-point favorite, so it’s the No. 25 Gators hoping to play spoiler Saturday night (7 p.m., ESPN).
“We’re the underdogs,” UF receiver Valdez Showers said. “We’re Florida, so we feel like we should be on top, but we have to show everybody why we should be on top.”
That might prove rather difficult.
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The Rebels (4-0, 2-0 SEC) are the toast of college football after beating Alabama for the second season in a row. They boast the nation’s second-most explosive offense (54.8 points per game), a roster littered with top 2016 NFL Draft prospects and a ball-hawking defense that leads the SEC in turnovers.
“This is a heck of an Ole Miss team,” UF coach Jim McElwain said. “They’re very good. They’re highly rated. They’ve got great players, and they’ve done a great job in recruiting and getting some of the top players in the country. How good are we? I don’t know.”
Ole Miss looked sluggish in its 27-16 win at home against Vanderbilt last weekend, so coach Hugh Freeze said his team upped its energy in advance of another marquee matchup with a Top 25 opponent.
“These games test you,” Freeze said.
But how far the Gators can truly push the Rebels remains unknown.
Florida is 4-0 for the first time since 2012, feeling confident about potentially finding a quarterback (although Will Grier is battling the flu) to pair with its top-flight defense. According to sources, Grier was at Friday’s team walk-through, and Florida is hopeful he can play. Sophomore quarterback Treon Harris will start if Grier can’t give it a go.
Ole Miss can expose several of UF’s limitations (offensive line inexperience, linebacker depth), so UF’s best shot to spring the upset starts with its menacing defensive line.
Led by senior tackle Jon Bullard, Florida’s ranks sixth nationally in sacks with 14 and allows just 3.09 yards per carry.
While the ballyhooed matchup between All-American cornerback Vernon Hargreaves and All-American wideout Laquon Treadwell has been a popular pregame topic, whether or not Florida’s relentless front (featuring Bullard and edge rushers Alex McCalister and CeCe Jefferson) can consistently disrupt Rebels quarterback Chad Kelly could have a greater impact on the game’s outcome.
Kelly, who teeters between fearlessness and recklessness, leads the SEC with 10 touchdowns and 304.8 yards per game, but he will be without starting right guard Justin Bell (injury) and Laremy Tunsil (NCAA inquiry).
The junior quarterback will still have plenty of help, though.
While Treadwell is the headliner, he’s hardly Ole Miss’ only playmaker. Evan Engram is the top tight end in the conference (a nation-leading 17.4 yards per catch), Quincy Adeboyejo actually leads the Rebels with five touchdown receptions and all-world defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, who has played some H-back too, has more trips to the end zone (three) than any Florida player not named Kelvin Taylor.
“They got athletes everywhere,” UF linebacker Antonio Morrison said. “The tight end is a great athlete. All their receivers are great athletes. Quarterback got deceptive athleticism. … I know they seen all our missed tackles on film. They are licking they lips right now.”
To beat Ole Miss, McElwain might need to be creative on offense. UF has already exhibited some luck, winning three games by a seven points or less, recovering fumbles at a high rate and starting the season a ridiculous 10 for 10 on fourth-down conversions.
Saturday: No. 3 Mississippi at No. 25 Florida
Kickoff: 7 p.m.; Ben Hill Griffin Stadium at Florida Field, Gainesville.
TV/radio: ESPN; WINZ 940.
Favorite: Mississippi by 6 1/2.
Records: Florida 4-0 (2-0 SEC); Mississippi 4-0 (2-0 SEC).
Series: Mississippi leads 12-10-1.
Florida injuries: Questionable — K Austin Hardin (quad); TE C’yontai Lewis (hand); DB Kylan Johnson (leg); LB Matt Rolin (back). Out — LB Jeremi Powell (foot); LB Alex Anzalone (shoulder); RB Case Harrison (thumb).
Mississippi injuries: Out — DB Tony Conner (knee); DT Issac Gross (neck); OL Rod Taylor (shoulder).