No. 11 Ole Miss, No. 4 Florida State tangle in primetime

Published 6:00 am Monday, September 5, 2016

OXFORD (AP) — Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze has been joking for months about how neutral his team’s neutral-site game against Florida State in Orlando, Florida really is.

After all, Camping World Stadium is right in the backyard of many Florida State fans. For most Ole Miss fans, it’s at least a 10-hour car ride to central Florida.

Not that Freeze is complaining. When No. 11 Ole Miss meets No. 4 Florida State on Monday night, it will cap off an opening week of marquee matchups and the showdown will be the focal point of the college football world.

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And that’s exactly what the Rebels have wanted.

“It is a difficult task, but we relish this opportunity,” Freeze said. “It gives our football team a chance to play on a national stage against one of the top teams in America. That’s the kind of games we want to be in and we have an opportunity to expand our brand.”

Both teams expect to have a prolific offense this season, but for very different reasons.

Ole Miss will lean on senior quarterback Chad Kelly, who threw for 4,042 yards and ran for 500 more last season. He has experienced receivers around him, including Damore’ea Stringfellow, Quincy Adeboyejo and tight end Evan Engram.

Florida State quarterback Deondre Francois, meanwhile, will be making his first career start.

Kelly is on many preseason watch lists after he led the Rebels to a 10-3 record last season and a win in the Sugar Bowl. Francois is the second freshman QB to start for the Seminoles in the past four seasons, though he will step into the spotlight in his hometown.

Kelly can empathize slightly with what Francois might be going through.

The Ole Miss starter said the biggest adjustment QBs face making their first start is “not really knowing what the speed of a real, live game is going to be.”

“There are no coaches behind you, so instead of 15, 20 people on the field, there’s just 11,” Kelly said. “Any time you get to go out, be the starter and be the man it’s fun.”

Francois was recruited out of Bradenton, Florida’s, IMG Academy as the nation’s top dual threat quarterback in 2015. He redshirted last season but teammates were impressed with how he ran the scout team.

When Sean Maguire missed the spring with a broken ankle, Francois put himself into the mix for the starting job with consistent practices and two touchdowns in the spring game. Maguire and Francois began preseason camp with both listed first on the depth chart, but Francois moved to the front after Maguire fractured his right foot on the third day of practice.

Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher has continued to be impressed with Francois’ poise and how he has been able to control the offense.

“It’s not about being physical and throwing the ball. You’ve got to have presence in the huddle, you’ve got to have presence on the field, you’ve got to have command,” Fisher said. “I think that’s continually growing and I’m grinding on him.”

Fisher tried to recruit Kelly in 2013 before he decided to go to Clemson. A couple stops later, Kelly found a home at Ole Miss.

The Florida State coach said the Seminoles will need to pressure Kelly with a disciplined pass rush where defenders remain in their lanes.

“I mean, you rush crazy and give him run lanes, that’s where he makes tons of plays scrambling, getting the ball down the field and keeping his eyes up,” Fisher said. “He’s a great competitor.”

Who will protect Kelly from the Seminoles’ pass rush has been a question mark for the Rebels throughout training camp. Freeze finally named junior Rod Taylor the starting left tackle, even though Taylor has never started a game at either tackle position.

Freeze said he “loves” the work that Taylor and the rest of the offensive line has done during preseason camp. Even so, he said it’s hard to predict how the relatively inexperienced group will react to one of the best teams in the country.

“I like what I see on tape, but give me a couple weeks and we will know if it is fool’s gold or not,” Freeze said.

Taylor’s emergence was a bit of a surprise considering his career has been checkered with occasional discipline problems. The latest was when he was arrested on suspicion of shoplifting during the spring.

“If he takes this seriously, applies himself and puts the work in he can be that pivotal player who could change the shape of our offensive line and even our team,” Engram said.


• Monday, 7 p.m.

• TV: ESPN; Radio: 1490 AM

• No. 11 Rebels and No. 4 Seminoles both have a chance to dramatically improve their national title hopes with a big win, after an opening weekend marked by several upsets and close calls involving Top 10 teams.