THREE THINGS WE KNOW
1. The defense will anchor the team.
Houston Nutt spent most of his coaching career prior to becoming a head coach on the offensive side of the ball. That's mostly what he's still been known for, from the Matt-Jones-runs-wild offense to buying in and promoting the Wildcat series he learned from Gus Malzahn. This season though, the offense will likely take a back seat to the defense. The talent disparity is large; the offense averages 3.0 stars per player while the defense averages 3.6 per player (according to Rivals). The experience gap is huge as well as Phil Steele counts four returning starters on offense while Athlon counts just one (using a more conservative definition of "returning starter"). The defense lost some guys but nothing near that degree, so it will likely be carrying the team.
2. The line will anchor the defense.
There's something about the state of Mississippi this year and defensive lines. I praised the School Down South for its D-line in this space a month ago, and the same high marks can be handed out for the Rebels' unit as well. It took him a while to get to campus, but Jerrell Powe has been about as good as advertised. He's flanked by former Twitterer extraordinaire Kentrell Lockett, the team's top returning sack man from '09, and the terribly quick, 6-6/265 JUCO transfer Wayne Dorsey at the ends. It begins to feel like a broken record talking about great defensive lines in the SEC, but it comes with the territory. Ole Miss simply has a really good set of guys there.
3. The rushing attack must lead the offense.
For a guy who once coached Barry Sanders and Thurman Thomas at Oklahoma State, it makes sense that Nutt generally prefers to have a run-oriented offense. He's had some really good ones since, most recently Dexter McCluster. No one appears ready for that kind of stardom just yet, with Brandon Bolden's 613 yards in 2009 the most of any of the returning cast. Still, Nutt always manages to put together an offense that moves the ball well somehow, some way. Guess who led the SEC in total yardage in league play last year. Yup. Given the uncertainties we'll explore after the jump, it's a safe bet that the Nutt will lean on the running game this fall. Given his history, it will find a way to come through.
THREE THINGS WE DON'T KNOW
1. What to expect out of the offense.
Nathan Stanley may have won the starting quarterback job fairly decisively, but that doesn't necessarily mean he's headed for all-conference honors or anything. He'll go through some growing pains early on, but at 6-5/215, he's got the size everyone looks for in their signal callers. It's not enough that Ole Miss is breaking in a new quarterback though. It's breaking in almost an entirely new offensive line and receiving corps too. Now-Dolphin John Jerry opened up a lot of holes in the middle of the line, and the only guys to catch more than 20 passes last year (Shay Hodge and McCluster) are both under contract with NFL teams right now. It's hard to know what we're getting from this offense as a whole in 2010.
2. How well the Rebels will hold onto the ball.
No one had a worse turnover margin in SEC play last year than Ole Miss did. Some of that had to do with five lost fumbles, though that was just midrange for the conference. Most of that had to do with Jevan Snead's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad season with 15 picks in the eight contests. Nathan Stanley would have to work to match that this fall, but he'll have a completely rebuilt line in front of him and a very green set of receivers going out for his passes. Those factors will conspire against him, but at the same time, they will probably keep the coaches from asking him to do as much as they did from Snead last year. Regression to the mean will help out, but there's only so much that's random about a quarterback making poor decisions. Coaching up better risk management at the quarterback spot is imperative.
3. How the yards will turn into points.
Despite leading the SEC in total yardage in conference play last year, Ole Miss could only parlay that into a tie for seventh in scoring offense. The turnovers play a big part of that, but it's not everything. Turning yards into points is the key goal of an offense, and the Rebels must do a better job of it. Working against them there is the departure of reliable kicker Joshua Shene, and while Bryson Rose was fine in the spring, he's completely untested.