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Outback Bowl Burning Questions: Injuries, rust and motivation all loom in Tampa

TAMPA — A historic season ends for No. 7 Indiana on Saturday. The Hoosiers will be the highest ranked team in the AP poll to ever play in the Outback Bowl. IU will face 4-5 Ole Miss. Here’s three key questions as the Hoosiers face the Rebels Saturday afternoon at Raymond James Stadium.

Indiana practices at Jesuit High School in Tampa, FL ahead of the 2021 Outback Bowl. (Missy Minear/Indiana Athletics)

How will the Ole Miss offense handle injuries and opt-outs?

Ole Miss has an elite offense. The Rebels have scored at least 30 points in all but two of their nine SEC games this season. Lane Kiffin’s offense is third in the country with 562 yards per game. But IU will face a different-looking Rebels offense on Saturday. 

Ole Miss is without its leading wide receiver Biletnikoff Award semifinalist Elijah Moore and tight end Kenny Yeboah. Both opted out of the last month of the season to prepare for the NFL draft. Their third leading receiver Braylon Sanders was hurt in the Rebels regular-season finale against LSU and will be a game-time decision. Those three account for two-thirds of Ole Miss' receiving yards so far this season.

The run game situation is also uncertain for the Rebels. Lead back Jerrion Ealy is dealing with an ankle injury from the LSU game. Ealy, who averages over 80 rushing yards per game, will likely not be 100% even if he plays.

With depleted weapons it’s hard to foresee the look of Lane Kiffin’s offense on Saturday. IU’s defense is putting all its focus on Rebels quarterback Matt Corral.

Corral is a highly touted redshirt sophomore who was part of the 2017 Elite 11 quarterback class with Jack Tuttle. He has fit perfectly into Lane Kiffin's explosive offense.

“He’s the guy that makes it all go,” IU defensive coordinator Kane Wommack said. Most concerning for IU are Corral’s legs. Corral will run on designed zone reads and also extend broken plays with his feet. He is averaging 52 yards per game rushing on the season. One of the IU defense's biggest weaknesses this season has been slowing down mobile quarterbacks such as Sean Clifford and Justin Fields.

Ole Miss’ offense is depleted. But Lane Kiffin is one of the most offensively creative coaches in the country. With a playmaker at quarterback the Rebels still have the ability to put up points in bunches. New Rebels in the spotlight will warrant different play designs and will likely lead to some surprising wrinkles. IU’s defense has not blinked all season. Saturday will provide a new challenge.

Will a month-long layoff affect Indiana?

IU last played four Saturdays ago on Dec. 5 in Madison. Since then IU has dealt with at least 28 COVID-19 positives and spent nearly two weeks of the past month without a full team practice.

After seven straight weeks of Big Ten play and a month break the Hoosiers will now play one final game. Rust may play a factor for IU, especially early, in the Outback Bowl. And IU has not started fast this season. Meanwhile, Ole Miss will have had just two weeks off since their regular season finale against LSU.

Conditioning could be another concern for IU especially in the closing stretches of a tight game against an up-tempo Ole Miss offense. While we may never know which IU players dealt with COVID-19, there will likely be Hoosiers playing on the field at Raymond James Stadium who had to quarantine for over a week — unable to practice or train during that time. COVID-19 effects on the body’s health are also a concern as multiple athletes nationwide since March have reported lingering health effects long after testing positive.

Hoosiers players have talked in press conferences about their extensive work with IU strength and conditioning coach Aaron Wellman and their diligence on the practice field over the past week. However, Tom Allen admitted a real football game can not be simulated. IU’s rust, time off and conditioning worries are one of IU’s biggest concerns heading into Saturday’s game.

How does motivation factor into the game?

Motivation is always a question in non-championship bowl games. After this most unusual season where players and coaches were unable to see their families or go anywhere outside of the football facility, a lack of motivation is even more of a concern. It was evident Wednesday night when an opted-out and uninterested Florida team laid an egg in the Cotton Bowl against Oklahoma.

Jack Tuttle throws at Jesuit High School in Tampa, FL ahead of Indiana's matchup with Ole Miss in the 2021 Outback Bowl. (Missy Minear/Indiana Athletics)

In the Outback Bowl, the onus would seem to be on the SEC team as well to have a lack of motivation.

"We're recruiting our own players to play in a bowl game that they've never played in,” Kiffin said. “It is what it is."

What it could be is a depleted Ole Miss roster with backups uninterested in playing in one final game after a mentally and physically taxing season. On the other hand, Kiffin may be able to motivate the Rebs to take the field Saturday to make a statement against a top-10 team.

IU will likely not have an issue with motivation. The Hoosiers have had no opt-outs all season and after being snubbed for a New Year’s Six bowl are motivated to make a statement. Tom Allen’s word of the week was “finish.”

The best IU season in 50 years will only be so sweet with a concluding victory. Will Ole Miss show up eager to play in Tampa with the Hoosiers? That may decide if the Outback Bowl is a barnburner or a blowout.

Our Hoosier Network team will have game day updates from Tampa all weekend. Follow them on Twitter @ankony_jack, @grifgonzo and @epstein_griffin along with The Hoosier Network handle, @TheHoosierNet, for all the coverage you need from Raymond James Stadium. The Outback Bowl kicks off Saturday at 12:30 p.m. ET on ABC.

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