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Boise State vs. Ole Miss game preview: Broncos begin new era in SEC country

The Broncos take on the Mississippi Rebels in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game Thursday night in Atlanta.

WEEK 1: Boise State Broncos vs. #19 Mississippi Rebels

WHEN: Thursday, August 28 -- 6:00 PM, MST

WHERE: Georgia Dome, Atlanta, Georgia (71,228)

COACHES: Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin (7-4), 1st year; Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze (45-18), 3rd year



RADIO: Bronco Radio Network: KBOI (670 AM) and KKGL (96.9 FM) in the Boise area; ESPN radio nationally

SERIES RECORD: 1st meeting. Boise State is 1-4 against SEC teams

FUN FACT: Bryan Harsin and Hugh Freeze previously coached Arkansas State the past two years and also won conference titles.

Can Boise State still run with the Big Dogs? Coach Pete has left for a Pac-12 program, but a rising star in the coaching ranks has replaced him and he happens to know Boise State inside and out. That person is new head coach Bryan Harsin, who is on a mission to prove that both he and his new staff are ready to return the Broncos to their former glory and rise above last year’s 8-5 finish, their worst finish since 1998.

However, Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze is equally determined to make a statement. He inherited a team in 2011 that had won just two games that year, a team that had also lost 14 straight SEC conference games. Under his leadership the past two years the Rebels have won 15 games consisting of six SEC victories and two bowl wins.

What to expect when Ole Miss has the ball: Ole Miss is ranked nationally at #18 for a good reason. They have 16 returning starters in key positions, and six are key members on the offense. Senior quarterback Bo Wallace, 6-4, 203 lbs, had a great season last year in completing 283 of 437 passes for 3,346 yards and 18 touchdowns. He’s ranked second in school history with 7,085 total yards.

One of his favorite targets has been wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, 6-2, 224 lbs. Treadwell caught 72 passes last season and is ready to make his move as the leading Rebel wideout. Tight end Evan Engram 6-3, 214 lbs, is another big recipient of Wallace’s passes. The fact is that the Rebels had the 3rd best passing offense in the SEC last season, averaging 283.3 yards per game. That is one reason why you can look for the Bronco pass rush to try and put pressure on Wallace and get him out of his comfort zone. Another reason is that Wallace was sacked 24 times last season and Boise State will want to exploit that to try to keep the action on the ground. The Broncos new defense should allow an improved secondary with three safeties and a few cornerbacks to guard against the pass: S Jeremy Ioane, 5-10, 192 lbs; S Darian Thompson, 6-2, 205 lbs; CB Donte Daeyon, 5-9, 152 lbs; and CB Bryan Douglas, 5-9, 176 lbs, are all starters. But even without a passing game the Rebels could easily field a formidable ground game with two excellent running backs in the backfield: Jaylen Walton, 5-8, 168 lbs, and I'Tavius Mathers, 5-11, 189 lbs.

What to expect when Boise State has the ball: The Bronco offense will once again be headed up by veteran quarterback Grant Hedrick, 6-1, 195 lbs (1,825 yards and 18 touchdowns), and he has some big weapons returning to move the ball including both running back Jay Ajayi, 6-1, 215 lbs, and receiver Matt Miller, 6-3, 220 lbs. Last season, the Broncos’ scoring offense ranked second in the Mountain West and 19th nationally, averaging 37.5 points per game. The Broncos passing stats averaged 249.2 yards per game and their total offensive output totaled 476 yards per game, good enough for a 20th place finish among all FBS teams.  Another facet that will be a factor this season is the return of the tight end pass option.  But passing aside, the Broncos are still expected to come out with a balanced charge consisting of both a running and passing attack as they look for a weakness they can exploit in the Rebel defense.

But that might be hard to find. The Rebels return 10 starters on defense from a team that was ranked 38th nationally last season. Two of those starters are a set of bookends in the form of All-American DT Robert Nkemdiche, 6-4, 277 lbs, and his brother, LB Denzel Nkemdiche, 5-11, 212 lbs. They will be looking to stuff the run. But they are hardly alone in a talented defensive lineup. Deeper downfield to further defend against both the run and passing game will be CB’s Senquez Golson, 5-9, 178 lbs, and Mike Hilton, 5-9, 182 lbs. Also waiting downfield will be another All-American in the form of safety Cody Prewitt, 6-2, 217 lbs, one of the top DBs in the country. Last season he chalked up 71 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and led the SEC with 6 interceptions. That is why a Broncos passing attack will be very challenging.

Special Teams: Boise State has the 11th best field goal kicker in the nation with Dan Goodale, 5-10, 185 lbs, doing the honors. Last season he was 17 of 19 in goals with an 89.5 percent rating. He also booted 57 of 60 extra points through the uprights and doubled as a punter averaging 61 yards a kick.  Back doing kickoff and punt returns is versatile wide receiver Shane Williams-Rhodes, 5-6, 156 lbs. He was the #1 punt returner in the MW conference in 2013, averaging 14.56 yards per return.

Ole Miss on the other hand is still juggling with their talent on Special Teams. As of August 10th they were still looking to find a starter in the punting competition between redshirt freshman Will Gleeson, 6-3, 189 lbs, and true freshman Gary Wunderlich, 6-0, 175 lbs. That goes for the kicker position as well as the battle for the starting position is still between senior Andrew Fletcher, 5-8, 180 lbs, redshirt freshman Andy Pappanastos, 5-11, 189 lbs, and Wunderlich.

Factors that could change the dynamics on the field: Bryan Harsin was one of the greatest offensive coordinators in college ball last decade, but he is still an unproven commodity as a head coach. The same might also be said of his starting quarterback. Hedrick had good stats last season but was only 3-2 in the games he started in, largely due to crippling turnovers. Neither of those two instills much fear in opposing teams.

Contrast that with a top-ranked Ole Miss team that is a 9-point favorite over the Broncos. The Rebels are a team that is salty and confident, and perhaps thinking past Thursday’s game. There has been a lot of preseason media hype swirling around the Rebels locker room that Ole Miss will challenge Alabama or LSU as contender in the SEC West and be in the mix for a conference title. That distraction could be to their detriment.

I’m optimistic that the Broncos could pull out an upset. It certainly wouldn't be the first time they have caught a team napping. At the very least, I expect them to cover the spread.