Don’t look for an elevated sweetness level in the Sugar Bowl. Big 12 Conference champion Baylor Bears and SEC West runner-up Ole Miss Rebels got to this point by having a decent amount of ferocity in the way they play.
While other teams in their conferences like to spread things out and throw the ball all over the field, these are two physical running football teams who are also relentless defensive teams.
Baylor has won three of its last four bowl games. Ole Miss is in a bowl game for the second straight year, something that hasn’t happened since becoming bowl eligible during the 2014 and 2015 campaigns.
Baylor is 4-1 in its last five games when listed by the college football spreads as an underdog.
Both teams exceeded expectations.
Baylor had an expected-win total of 5½ coming into the season, while three teams in the SEC West had higher expected-win totals than Ole Miss’ 7½. Now Baylor is seventh and Ole Miss eighth in the College Football Playoff rankings as well as being sixth and eighth in the Associated Press Top 25 poll.
Game: Baylor (11-2) vs. Ole Miss (10-2)
Location: Caesars Superdome, New Orleans
Day/Time: Saturday, 8:45 p.m. ET
|Baylor||+1½ (-110)||Even||55½ (-110o)|
|Ole Miss||-1½ (-110)||-120||55½ (-110u)|
Pitre does a little bit of everything for Baylor Bears
When Jalen Pitre headed to Baylor, he was the 76th-rated safety in the Class of 2017 according to the 247sports.com recruiting database.
It might be time for a recount as Pitre is arguably the best safety in college football and played a key role in the Bears going from 2-7 in 2020 to 11-2 this season, including a victory over Oklahoma State in the Big 12 Championship Game.
Pitre was one of the bright spots during that difficult 2020 campaign as he led the Bears with 60 tackles and 13 tackles for loss. Pitre was the team leader in solo tackles and tackles for loss (17.5) for the second straight season but also displayed improved coverage skills.
Baylor went from allowing an average of 180.4 rushing yards in 2020 to only giving up 116.5 in 2021. Pitre played a major role in the growth of the Baylor defensive unit and figures to be front and center as the Bears attempt to slow down an Ole Miss offense that ranks ninth in the FBS with an average of 224.3 rushing yards per game.
That defensive prowess has resulted in five of Baylor’s last six games going under the college football odds total.
Three Players to Watch
Running back Abram Smith has rushed for 1429 yards and 12 touchdowns. It was quite the transformation for a player who came into 2021 with 12 carries and had 48 tackles during the 2020 season when he moved to linebacker. He is the first Baylor player with more than 1,000 rushing yards in a season since 2016 and has the most rushing yards at Baylor since Terrance Ganaway had 1,547 yards in 2011.
Pitre leads Baylor with 17.5 tackles for loss. He also has two interceptions, a team-leading seven pass breakups and 70 tackles. He was named the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year.
Offensive tackle Connor Galvin earned third-team Associated Press All-American honors and was a first-team All-Big 12 selection as he helped Baylor go from averaging 310.2 yards of total offense during the 2020 season to putting up 430.3 yards per game this season.
Quarterback Gerry Bohanon (hamstring) is probable. Quarterback Blake Shapen (shoulder) is doubtful.
👏GERRY IS BACK🏈#Baylor is 2-0 against the future of the SEC, can they take down Ole Miss?? Gerry Bohanon is expected to be back as QB1, a spot he worked for since 2018 #SicEm @6NewsCTX || @KCENSports pic.twitter.com/YxntyU9zEj
— Niki Lattarulo (@NikiLattarulo) December 30, 2021
Corral’s Improved Decision-Making Keys Ole Miss Rebels
Matt Corral is anything but a one-year wonder. He was 10-for-10 passing with a pair of touchdown strikes in the second collegiate game in which he appeared, helped the Ole Miss Rebels top Arkansas in the 2019 SEC opener. He had a three-game stretch with 412, 513 and 385 passing yards in 2020. However, the Ole Miss quarterback saved his best for last.
After throwing an SEC-high 14 interceptions as a junior, Corral didn’t have as many risky throws while leading the Rebels to a 10-win regular season. Corral threw just one interception in the first seven games and had only four passes picked off during the 2021 season.
Corral completed at least 64 percent of his passes eight times this season, with the Rebels going 7-1 in those games to pose the biggest threat to Alabama in the SEC West Division.
Corral also ran for 195 yards in a win over Tennessee, but he averaged less than 10 carries per game in the final six regular-season contests as the Ole Miss coaches tried to keep him as healthy as possible.
Ole Miss has covered against the Las Vegas odds in five of its last seven games.
Three Players to Watch
Quarterback Matt Corral has thrown for 3339 yards with 20 touchdown passes and four interceptions. He is also the Rebels’ third-leading rusher with 597 yards even though some injury issues limited the number of running plays he had in the second half of the season.
Defensive lineman Sam Williams has 12.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss. He was the only Ole Miss player to be named first-team All-SEC.
Receiver Dontario Drummond has 67 catches and 924 receiving yards despite missing the Liberty game. He had a season-high 14 catches in a win over Mississippi State in the regular-season finale.
Kicker Caden Costa is questionable.
Betting on the Game
Baylor is second in the Big 12 with 34 sacks while Ole Miss is third in the SEC with 40 so it will be interesting to see if either team can get into the backfield on defense playing against two very sound offensive lines.
Ole Miss is tied for sixth nationally with just nine turnovers lost. The Rebels are +11 in turnover margin and Baylor +10.
Both teams averaged more than 40 rushing attempts per game. Ole Miss has led the SEC in rushing offense in each of the last two seasons but somehow did not have an offensive lineman named to either the first or second All-SEC squads.
Something for those who bet online to ponder, the total has gone under in the last seven Ole Miss games and in five of Baylor’s last six games. The total of 55½ seems a little on the high side for teams as sound defensively as the Bears and Rebels. Four of the last five Sugar Bowls finished under the 55-point total including Baylor’s 26-14 loss to Georgia in 2020.
The teams are a combined 5-1 in one-score games so it would hardly be surprising to see this one come right down to the final drive or two.