Tribune Mizzou athletics reporter Eric Blum spoke with Nick Suss of The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi, ahead of Missouri's homecoming game against Ole Miss on Saturday.

Suss, in his second season covering Ole Miss, shares how this is already a better season for the Rebels than 2018, what challenges they will provide Missouri and how he thinks the game will play out.

The conversation has been slightly edited for clarity and length.

Blum: What can you tell us about this year’s Ole Miss team and where things currently stand?

Suss: It’s an interesting team. Mississippi spent the offseason making pretty big splashes by going out and getting two high-profile coordinators to work under Matt Luke. They got Rich Rodriguez, who used to coach Michigan, West Virginia and Arizona, to run the offense, and they got Mike MacIntyre, who spent six or seven years as the head coach at Colorado, to run the defense. This is a team that really tried to reinvent itself. It went from a group last year that gained 67 or 68% of its yards through the air to this year it is running close to 70% of the time. Defensively, this was a 4-3 team that could not stop the run or pass last year. This year is really stout against the run, still can’t stop the pass all that well, but they transition to a 3-4 formation. The Rebels are getting a better pass rush, they’re getting a better run stop up the middle. Ole Miss is 3-3 and it looks like it has a stronger identity than it did this time last year.

Blum: Ole Miss rushed for more than 400 yards during a 31-6 victory over Vanderbilt last week. Do you think stopping the run will be the biggest challenge for Missouri?

Suss: The marquee matchup is going to be that Mizzou run defense, which is stellar. Ole Miss, meanwhile, the last two weeks, since John Rhys Plumlee, a true freshman, took over at quarterback, it’s been running the ball 70% of the time, and Plumlee has thrown 46 passes and ran 47 times on his own. If you remember Rich Rodriguez’s offenses from the Pat White and Steve Slaton days at West Virginia, it’s really reminiscent of that if you mix in some RPO (run-pass option) looks. They have a trio of really good running backs behind Plumlee as well.

Blum: How much confidence does Ole Miss take from beating Vanderbilt?

Suss: I think Ole Miss faced the worst team in the SEC four weeks ago when it beat Arkansas. Vanderbilt could be the worst, who knows. The Rebels have two SEC wins over two bottom-tier teams, and that’s an improvement over last year when they had one SEC win, so they’re already in a better position than they were last year. I think there’s some confidence. They ran for 400 yards against an SEC team; you’re going to be proud of yourself. Ole Miss also held Vanderbilt to six points, and that team scored 34 against LSU; you’re going to be confident. I don’t think Ole Miss will be too caught up in the glory of a win over Vanderbilt — as valuable as that win may have been.

Blum: This is only the second time Missouri and Ole Miss have faced off since the Tigers joined the conference in 2012. Do you think the unfamiliarity benefits the Tigers or Rebels more?

Suss: I have a hard time imagining it would help one team more than the other just because both teams are pretty independent of the other. Missouri is the more experienced team than Ole Miss. The Rebels are starting a ton of redshirt freshmen and true freshmen. There was a point during the Alabama game, if I’m not mistaken, where all five of the offensive linemen on the field were freshmen. They played three JUCO starters on defense that all transferred in. If they’ve never seen Missouri before, they’ve never seen anyone. I don’t know if that counts as an advantage for Ole Miss because every week is brand new, or a disadvantage because they’re going against a really experienced team.

eblum@columbiatribune.com

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