No.7 Baylor at full strength for Sugar Bowl showdown versus No.8 Ole Miss

By Michael Haag | Sports Writer

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think about No.7 Baylor football? It would probably be their stout defense under defensive-minded head coach Dave Aranda. On the flip side, No.8 University of Mississippi under head coach Lane Kiffin is more known for their strong offense, as they averaged over 500 yards total offense and 35.9 points per game.

In a matchup where two teams specialize on different sides of the field, one theme can be found in both. At the time of kickoff Saturday night, each sideline will be at full strength for the 88th annual Allstate Sugar Bowl. No player transfers, opt outs for the NFL draft, or COVID-19 issues to this point have surfaced.

Head coach Dave Aranda spoke Friday morning in a virtual press conference, where he mentioned a “most prepared, least distracted” mindset that the team embraced as they came to New Orleans. Aranda said the team’s arrival on Dec. 29, two days later than originally planned, didn’t give them as much time as most teams in a given bowl game would have to prepare. However, Aranda feels that even with all the distractions, the team is in a good spot headed into the bowl game.

“We have talked from the very beginning of the prep of the most prepared, the least distracted.” Aranda said. “The advantage can go to those that are most prepared. And so the distractions at this time are just so paramount. So most prepared, least distracted gives you the best chance to win in the bowl game. So I feel like we’re in great shape. I don’t anticipate right now us missing anyone going into this game.”

Aranda is close to his former stomping grounds, Caesars Superdome in New Orleans being roughly 80 miles away from Baton Rouge, home of Louisiana State University. He said the memories have flooded in since being back downtown and that the team is happy to be given the opportunity to play in this venue.

“I just feel like the team is thankful for the opportunity to be on this stage and have continued to work hard to take advantage of this opportunity,” Aranda said. “I’ve been by this [Caesars] Superdome so many times whether it’s recruiting or it’s heading downtown for a bite to eat. And so just to be back brings back memories. And to have the opportunity to play in this game is just so cool. And I’m very appreciative and blessed for it.”

Redshirt junior quarterback Gerry Bohanon will lead the Bears’ offense, now fully recovered from his hamstring injury suffered on Nov. 20. According to Aranda, Bohanon has, “A look in his eye,” and knows, “[Gerry’s] heart’s on fire, too.” Aranda said he is excited for Bohanon’s return and has no doubt Bohanon will be ready for the big moment.

Ole Miss junior quarterback and NFL prospect Matt Corral leads the way for the Rebels’ offense, one that was high-scoring and lethal all year long. Aranda spoke about Corral’s impact as a competitor and knows he will pose problems for the Bears’ defense.

“When I look at Matt Corral, I just see a competitor,” Aranda said. “I see a winner. I see someone who wills his team. In today’s age, a guy his caliber, staying with it, and playing in this game, I think, speaks a lot. And so excited to be able to see him. Just love college football and love competitors and I think he’s a great one.”

Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin gave praise to Aranda and the Bears in his virtual press conference Friday morning. Kiffin said he knows how good Aranda-led defenses have been in the past as a coordinator, but now understands that he has a whole team built around how he coaches. He said the Bears will be “a very big challenge.”

“I think how physical they play, disciplined [stands out most]. They’re so well coached [under Dave Aranda],” Kiffin said. “You don’t just see many big plays against them or screw-ups, which makes it hard to beat. He basically has created a team like his defense always have been, limit big plays, very smart, disciplined defense. Now he has a whole team of it.”

The team game plan is expected to be similar to what they have done all season long, with the goal to stick to what they know. Aranda said the key will be to stay true to themselves in order to ensure success against Ole Miss.

“I think it’s just very important for us to be us and for us to not get out of our lane of what we do well,” Aranda said. “And so I think offensively for us, to move the ball and run the ball, establish line of scrimmage, to get the eighth and ninth guy involved in the box so that there are opportunities for pass plays behind them, to use movement in the pocket and get our quarterback out on the perimeter where there’s a run or throw option. And then I think the ability to use motion, shifts to try to get the looks or the adjustments that we want, I think those things will lead to — those are kind of process things that I think will lead to the results or the outcome that we’re hoping for. But we have to execute that stuff well, and we really can’t get outside of that lane.”

Aranda mentioned how lethal Ole Miss’ offense is, and said if Baylor can keep their defensive plan simple and how they are used to playing, it will give them the best shot at slowing the Rebels down.

A key piece to the Bears’ defense has been senior hybrid safety Jalen Pitre. The Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year will be tasked with keeping tabs on Corral. Aranda said he knows this game means a lot to Pitre and that he will be prepared for the challenge.

“[Baylor Defensive Coordinator] Ron Roberts has a great plan and Jalen’s right in the center of it. I think Ole Miss is a really good stretch team. They get to the perimeter and are effective, and their quarterback is effective when he’s out of the pocket throwing. And so Jalen’s going to be right in the middle of all of that. I know he’s itching to be.”

According to Aranda, another big part of the game plan is to execute offensively in the red zone. He thinks the team has done a good job over the past few weeks in getting better since the 2020 season and now it is ultimately time to “Close the deal,” on one of the biggest stages in college football.

One of the two teams will set a school record Saturday night. Baylor (11-2) has never won 12 games in a season, and Ole Miss (10-2) has never reached 11 wins in a year. Kickoff is set for 7:45 p.m. at the Caesars Superdome and will be nationally televised on ESPN.