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, cap off an opening week of marque matchups and the showdown will be the focal point of the college football world.
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 will be making his first career start, so expect the Seminoles to rely on star running back Dalvin Cook, who starts the year among the favorites to win the Heisman Trophy.
The Seminoles also have an experienced defense led by safety Derwin James, who was second on the team as a freshman last season with 91 tackles. He also added 9 1 / 2 tackles for a loss.
“We’re ready to showcase what we’ve been putting in the work for all year,” James said. “I’m very excited. Everyone is excited. We’re anxious. I feel like it’s going to be a great game. Two great teams.”
Here are some things to watch when Ole Miss faces Florida State on Monday:
Ole Miss junior Rod Taylor was the surprise winner of the left tackle job during preseason camp. The 6-foot-3, 329-pounder has always been talented, it’s just that his body type is more suited for guard, which is where he spent most of his time in previous seasons. Now, he'll be charged with protecting quarterback Chad Kelly’s blindside.
Kelly was an unknown at this time last year, but led the Rebels to a 10-win season in 2015. Now he'll try for a repeat performance without former stars, including left tackle Laremy Tunsil and receiver Laquon Treadwell, who are now in the NFL.
Cook begins his Heisman campaign in a stadium where he helped lead Miami Central to a state title. Cook has eight straight 100-yard games when they take place in the state of Florida and is averaging 159.8 yards (180 carries, 1,278 yards and 15 touchdowns) during that span. Last year’s offensive line, led by left tackle Rod Johnson, also returns intact.
Keep An Eye On
Florida State junior outside linebacker Matthew Thomas. He missed all of last season due to a shoulder injury and team issues. Thomas’ quickness and ability to play both the run and pass could free up defensive linemen DeMarcus Walker and Josh Sweat from double teams.
With power out in 80 percent of Tallahassee and much of Florida State’s campus due to Hurricane Hermine, the Seminoles had to improvise during their final two days of practice. Fisher went through two hurricanes while he was an assistant at LSU – Katrina and Rita – and said balancing personal and football priorities in the aftermath of storms is always challenging. “That’s the way life is sometimes,” Fisher said. “Hopefully that’s a good lesson for life.”
Ole Miss vs. Florida State
When: 7 p.m. Sunday
Where: Orlando, Fla.
Radio: 103.1 FM