2018 SEASON PREVIEW — OLE MISS
2017 Win-Loss Record: 6-6 (3-5 SEC; ineligible for bowl game)
2017 S&P+ Rankings: 42nd (Overall), 9th (Offense), 113th (Defense)
You could say that last season was a roller coaster for Ole Miss Rebels football, and most would agree. After the swift departure of Hugh Freeze under shocking circumstances, Matt Luke was called upon to step in as the interim head coach. This was a little over a month before the season started and happened while the Rebels were still waiting to hear the outcome of the lengthy NCAA investigation. That investigation, of course, surrounded the program’s recruiting practices in recent years. Many were understandably expecting an utter debacle for the 2017 season, but a disaster was not the case.
Ole Miss was able to use talent to avoid a total systems failure and actually look downright scary at times on offense in 2017. Things were shakier on defense, however, as they fell nearly to the bottom of the defensive S&P+ rankings at 113th. The Landsharks simply could not get opponents’ offenses off the field at times and this can been seen with some of their win/loss results.
After seven games, the Rebs were 3-4 with wins against South Alabama, UT Martin and Vanderbilt and losses at Cal, at Alabama, at Auburn and against LSU at home. The average score was Rebels 17, opponents 45 in these four losses. But these numbers are skewed slightly as the offense AND defense were totally inept in the 66-3 loss to Bama. These results don’t appear too shocking when you consider that they had to take a rare trip to Pacific time and that Bama, Auburn and LSU are perennially some of the strongest teams in the SEC. But then, Shea Patterson tore his PCL vs. LSU (the 7th game).
Patterson was leading the league in passing yardage at the time and had a solid 17 TD to 9 INT ratio. The “utter debacle” looked like it was about to come to fruition.
Enter Jordan Ta’amu. Ta’amu was a transfer from New Mexico Military Institute, who was virtually unknown outside of the coaching and recruiting worlds. This would not be the case by the end of the year. He made an already productive offense even more productive. In five starts, he led the Rebels to a 3-2 record, with all games except one, the 50-22 victory over UL Lafayette, being close affairs. With a completion percentage of 66.5 percent and an 11/4 TD to INT ratio, Ta’amu proved that he could be a poised leader in the SEC. With that said, you cannot discuss what Ta’amu was able to accomplish without his receivers. They will play a huge role again in 2018.
Ole Miss’ group of wide receivers are known as the Nasty Wide Outs and even have an NWO title belt on the sidelines. Having an elite receiving corps is a indeed a “new world order” in the SEC, where it is typical for there to only be a few teams at most that rely heavily on the vertical game during any given season. Ole Miss would be foolish not to rely on their receiving game when A.J. Brown is on the roster. He reeled in 75 catches for 1,252 yards and 11 touchdowns last season.
Not only is Brown elite, a case could be made that he’s the best wideout in the country.
D.K. Metcalf and DaMarkus Lodge were no slouches either, as they each caught seven touchdown passes in 2017. After these three, depth and experience questions arise. You’ll see that this is the case in most position groups on this team. This may seem like a misprint—trust me, it’s not—but there are only four (4) catches returning from receivers not named Brown, Metcalf or Lodge. Junior tight end Dawson Knox and 4-star freshman Elijah Moore will be looked at to provide some support for the big three.
Experience issues carry over into the backfield after the departure of 1,000 yard rusher, Jordan Wilkins. Someone has to step up and it appears that Scottie Phillips, a JUCO transfer is getting the nod to start behind the line with Ta’amu. With all eyes to be set on the passing game, the backs can possibly catch a few opponents off guard. But again, experience and depth will be be an issue.
The offensive line is well established and should be fine if it stays mostly healthy throughout the season. Junior Greg Little at left tackle and senior Sean Rawlings at center will anchor a line that returns a combined 104 career starts. Now the O-Line did allow 32 sacks last season, BUT the returning experience should only improve those numbers. Also, a heavy reliance on the passing game and slowly developing deep plays essentially guarantees sacks allowed numbers to not be among the best.
Questions abound on defense. Starting up front, Breeland Speaks and Marquis Haynes are gone. They racked up 7.0 and 7.5 sacks respectively last season. This season, only 9.5 sacks combined return on the defensive line. Victor Evans could be the next star rushing the passer. He was hampered by a leg injury last season, but managed five TFL in five games, as noted by Bill Connelly. Look for junior Benito Jones to take a leadership role at nose tackle. He showed great flashes for an interior defensive lineman with 7.5 TFL in 2017.
The linebacker corps is filled with unknown quantities. 78 tackles sounds like a pretty solid season for an individual, right? Well... that’s how many return in total from 2017 amongst the Rebel linebackers. This group will more than likely still be establishing themselves a few games into the season. Detric Bing-Dukes is the only senior here and will be called on to be the voice from the MLB position.
The secondary is actually the most experienced position group on the team and thankfully so with all of the questions in the front seven. Ole Miss was not bad at all in pass defense last season, but was inconsistent at times. They finished 52nd in passing yards allowed (214 ypg). This should give fans a little bit of reprieve from their overall defensive concerns going into 2018. If he can add some INTs to his repertoire this year, senior strong safety Zedrick Woods could emerge as the star in this group after a solid campaign in 2017.
Wesley McGriff and Co. will have certainly have their hands full with the first two levels of the defense. They were absolutely torched on the ground last season, allowing 245 ypg. There’s nowhere to go but up for the with these run defense numbers.
The big news here is that sophomore Luke Logan is replacing Gary Wunderlich as the starting kicker. Wunderlich left Ole Miss as the school’s all-time leader in field goals made, field goal percentage, total points and was a 2016 Groza award semifinalist. That is a lot to follow.
Ole Miss Schedule
|1||Texas Tech (in Houston)|
Best Case Scenario: 10-2 (6-2 SEC)
If the offense runs completely rampant with the starting QB role being solely Jordan Ta’amu’s this season, multiple receivers post Biletnikoff Award worthy seasons (it’s possible with this group of WRs) and a solid running game is established, Ole Miss could certainly have a special season. For this scenario to be realistic, however, the team would have to be virtually injury-free and discipline-free. The defense would also have to adjust quickly with a lot of fresh faces for in order to play a high level from start to finish.
Worst Case Scenario: 4-8 (1-7 SEC)
This would look like what a lot of people were expecting out of last season. In this case, the depth issues would take center stage and there would have to be significant injuries on offense. It’s hard to say if 10-2 or 4-8 more unrealistic with this team. One would assume that the talent is too strong for only four wins, but at the same time if things go off the rails, the team could feel that they have nothing to play for with the bowl ban still in effect. Mailing it in is hard to picture with highly the respected Matt Luke at the helm, but it’s not out of the question.
We’re likely to see a shootout in Houston Week 1 vs. Texas Tech, but the talent of the Rebels should take hold as the game wears on. A 3-2 September is seems to be a likely outcome with Southern Illinois, Bama, Kent State and at LSU coming after the tilt vs. TTU.
October contains only three games, two of which should be victories for the Rebs, ULM and Arkansas. After last year’s 37-38 defeat, Ole Miss is hungry to see the Razorbacks again. The Auburn game may be close, but the Tigers appear to have the edge in the trenches.
November is where things get tricky. Will depth start to be an issue by this point in the season? I think it will and that we’ll see a 2-2 split in November. South Carolina and Ole Miss have not played since 2009. This unfamiliarity will play more into the Rebels’ hands and they’ll grab what could be a slight upset at home if Carolina is living up to their lofty expectations by this point.
The Gamecocks likely won’t have enough points in them to keep up. Having to travel to Aggieland this late in the season does not bode well with so many depth concerns. Finally, facing Nick Fitzgerald and the Bulldog defensive line will be a tall task even at home. After Fitzgerald’s injury during the Egg Bowl last season and D.K. Metcalf’s... theatrics, there’s no one the Dawgs want to beat more than the Ole Miss Rebels.
Prediction: 7-5 (3-5 SEC)