Ole Miss football is a narrow favorite over Baylor. Who has the edge in the Sugar Bowl?
OXFORD — One of the most important games of the year is also expected to be one of the closest.
No. 8 Ole Miss (10-2, 6-2 SEC) takes on No. 6 Baylor (11-2, 7-2 Big 12) in the Sugar Bowl on Saturday (7:45 p.m., ESPN). USA TODAY Sports and Tipico list the spread as favoring Ole Miss by 1.5 points. Of all remaining bowl games, that spread is tied for the narrowest margin, underscoring just how close this game is expected to be.
ESPN's Football Power Index gives Ole Miss a 51.6% chance to win. There's only one other New Year's Six game where the favorite isn't given at least a 62% chance of winning.
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When the gamblers and the analytics both say teams are this evenly matched, they usually are. So which team has the edge in the Sugar Bowl? Here are three factors that should decide the game.
Strength on strength: Turnover battle
Only three Power 5 teams forced more turnovers than Baylor this fall (24) and only two intercepted more passes than Baylor's 16. Among Power 5 teams, Colorado is the only team that turned the ball over fewer times than Ole Miss this season and Iowa is the only one with a better turnover margin.
The Bears played four games against teams that finished the year ranked in the top 25 and intercepted 10 passes across them. The Rebels played three such games and never threw an interception.
Baylor thrives on havoc. Ole Miss gels when its in rhythm. Whichever team asserts its strength is the team that controls the game.
The Rebels' chance: fourth downs
The defining play of Baylor's season was a fourth-and-goal stop from the 1-yard line to win the Big 12 championship. It was also one of the least likely.
Prior to that play, teams that made bowl games were 9-for-10 on fourth-down tries against Baylor's defense. Six run plays on fourth-and-1 or fourth-and-2 netted six conversions and two touchdowns. The only failed attempt was a fourth-and-10 pass from Kansas State that gained seven yards.
Only one FBS team has tried more fourth downs than Ole Miss, but the Rebels are just 10-for-20 on tries against FBS teams with winning records compared to 16-for-22 in all other games. If the Rebels can sustain fourth-down success the way Baylor's other top opponents did this year, it should be smooth sailing. If Baylor can replicate its game-winning success from the Big 12 championship, things get a little more complicated.
The Bears' chance: run well
Ole Miss played six games against FBS teams with winning records. Those teams averaged 215 rushing yards and 2.5 rushing touchdowns per game with 4.91 yards per carry. Those yardage marks would rank No. 121 and No. 110 out of 130 FBS teams if extended for a full season.
Baylor's run offense has been pretty stellar in its six games against winning teams. The Bears are averaging 178 yards per game and 4.5 yards per carry. This included a 297-yard performance against Oklahoma and a 303-yard mark against BYU.
Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, Auburn, Liberty and even Vanderbilt all rushed for more than 200 yards against Ole Miss. The Rebels have allowed at least one rushing touchdown every game this season.
Time of possession doesn't matter too much against Ole Miss' tempo offense. But if the Rebels are striking quick and the Bears are grinding out long drives with a physical, downhill run game, that's a recipe for wearing out Ole Miss' defense, which even at its best isn't particularly deep.
Baylor is a good team with a great defense. But it's an opportunistic defense. Ole Miss hasn't really struggled against those types of teams this year. If the Rebels can stay out of their own way with turnovers — on downs or otherwise — they'll deserve their favorite status in the Sugar Bowl.
Contact Nick Suss at 601-408-2674 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @nicksuss on Twitter.