Ole Miss vs. Georgia preview: Rebels have a chance, to Hugh Freeze's credit

Kevin C. Cox

It hasn't taken Hugh Freeze long to make dramatic improvements at Ole Miss, mostly with junior college transfers and Houston Nutt's spare parts.

Like Ohio to the presidential election, last week's Florida-Georgia game was a tipping point in the SEC East race. A Florida win would have meant that the Gators clinched the division crown; a Georgia win would have relegated Florida from "division leader" to "needing Ole Miss to beat Georgia in Athens to still have a shot." Florida handed both the ball (six times) and the division (once) to Georgia on Saturday afternoon, so now the Gators need a miracle.

Or, more precisely, they need Hugh Freeze's Rebels, a two-touchdown underdog, to pull off a rather significant upset between the hedges. Now, the F/+ picks like Ole Miss' chances a little more than Vegas does (Georgia by 11.4), but the odds are still stacked against the Rebs.

Don't let a likely competitive loss to Georgia, however, distract you from the simple fact that Freeze has improved Ole Miss enough in his first season that the Rebels are only a 14-point underdog. In 2011, the highlight of Ole Miss' 2-10 season was either beating a 4-9 Fresno State team on the road or scoring a long touchdown early in the game against Alabama (a game they eventually lost by 45 points, seven of which were scored on this embarrassing play).

In 2012, the Rebels have already increased their wins by 150 percent, but they honestly haven't played a terribly impressive schedule (wins: Central Arkansas, UTEP, at Tulane, Auburn, at Arkansas). The win at Arkansas was a lovely step forward, but what is more notable about Freeze's performance thus far is the uniformity of the improvement. Ole Miss has regressed a bit in terms of special teams, but both offense (from mediocre to excellent) and defense (from terrible to average) have progressed with Freeze and coordinators Dan Werner (co-offense), Matt Luke (co-offense) and Dave Wommack (defense) in charge.


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Rushing Offense

Despite the presence of a good pair of running backs (Jeff Scott and Brandon Bolden), Ole Miss' running game was untrustworthy last season because of an awful line that ranked 109th in Adj. Line Yards and 110th in Adj. Sack Rate. Four of the five most experienced linemen departed, but such departures only really matter when the line is good. Ole Miss' current five starting linemen had combined for just 29 career starts at the end of the year (15 from right guard A.J. Hawkins, nine from center Evan Swindall, five from left guard Aaron Morris, and none from tackles Emmanuel McCray and junior college transfer Pierce Burton), but it has produced at a very high level. The Rebs have improved dramatically to 29th in Adj. Line Yards.

Jeff Scott's per-carry average has increased from 4.6 to 5.4 and backups I'tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton have averaged 6.7 yards per carry in minimal opportunities. New quarterback Bo Wallace has also shown decent mobility at times -- 11 carries for 94 yards versus Central Arkansas, 13 for 57 and two scores versus Auburn, nine for 49 versus Arkansas -- and utility man Randall Mackey has thrown in 220 rushing yards as well (along with 59 passing yards and 251 receiving yards). Against a Georgia defense that has been a little leaky when it comes to big plays on the ground, the Rebels could see some success.

Passing Offense

Georgia has been surprisingly mediocre in pass defense (66th in Passing S&P+), while Ole Miss has improved significantly in this regard this season. The Rebels have gone from 86th in Passing S&P+ to 12th, thanks mostly to the Wallace-to-Moncrief connection. Junior college transfer (via Arkansas State) Bo Wallace, who looks like he was born and bred to play quarterback for the University of Mississippi, has picked up beautifully where he left off at East Mississippi Community College last year. He is completing 66 of his passes for 206 yards per game (and 10 touchdowns to nine interceptions) and managed not to completely embarrass himself versus Alabama (15-for-26 for 123 yards … and, yes, two picks and four sacks; the bar is pretty low against Alabama).

Wallace has developed a lovely rapport with sophomore Donte Moncrief, a former star recruit for Houston Nutt. Moncrief has caught 39 of 57 passes for 540 yards (9.5 per target) and five touchdowns and has provided the ability to stretch the field for underneath options like Vince Sanders (22 catches for 224 yard) and Ja-Mes Logan (22 for 212).

Hugh Freeze knows how to engineer an offense that is both pass-friendly and relatively balanced. He inherited decent personnel in this regard (just imagine what he could have done with Nickolas Brassell), but the amount of improvement has been staggering.

That said, pass protection is indeed still an issue, both because of the line and because Wallace sometimes holds onto the ball for too long. Alabama did get to Wallace four times, and Texas got him five times. Georgia's pass rush is a one-man affair -- despite missing two games, Jarvis Jones has 8.5 of the Dawgs' rather paltry 16 sacks -- but when that one man is Jones, that might be enough. Just ask Missouri or Florida.

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Kevin Liles, US Presswire

Rushing Defense

The Ole Miss defense was pretty consistently awful last year, but the run defense was particularly egregious. The Rebels ranked 96th in Rushing S&P+ and 85th in Adj. Line Yards, and as with the trenches on offense, they had to replace three starting linemen, not to mention linebacker Damien Jackson.

But hey, no worries. Despite inexperience and a general lack of size (ends C.J. Johnson and Cameron Whigham average 244 pounds, and "linebackers" Denzel Nkemdiche and Mike Hilton average 189; okay, the 175-pound Hilton is much more safety than linebacker in Freeze's flexible 4-2-5), the Rebels have improved to 43rd in Rushing S&P+ and, incredibly, 15th in Adj. Line Yards. Bringing in a guy known for the spread offense is not supposed to immediately result in stunning improvement along both lines, but here we are.

As much as anything, the Ole Miss defense relies on funneling the ball toward Nkemdiche and big middle linebacker Mike Marry. The two have combined for 70.5 tackles, 13.5 behind the line of scrimmage. Nkemdiche has been an absolute revelation as a redshirt freshman, logging nine tackles for loss, two sacks, two interceptions, two passes broken up, two forced fumbles and two quarterback hurries despite youth and a small frame (at 5'11, 203 pounds, he is smaller than some cornerbacks). Ends Johnson and Jason Jones and tackles Gilbert Pena and Isaac Gross (a true freshman) help in the playmaking department, but Nkemdiche's emergence has meant the world to this defense.

Georgia's ground dominance has slowed up in recent weeks -- after combining for 302 yards, 8.9 per carry, against Tennessee, star Dawg freshmen Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall have averaged only 3.8 yards per carry in the last three weeks despite a solid game from Gurley against Florida -- but Ole Miss offers a unique enough challenge, both because of scheme and personnel, that it is hard to tell what to expect when Georgia hands the ball off.

Passing Defense

Relatively speaking, Ole Miss' pass defense was a strength last year (68th in Passing S&P+) despite an awful pass rush. Junior corner Charles Sawyer looked like a keeper (three tackles for loss, four interceptions, nine passes broken up) and has played pretty well again this year, while junior college transfer Dehendret Collins has contributed quickly, but Ole Miss ranks a good-not-great 46th against the pass. The pass rush, however, has improved dramatically. The Rebels have recorded 22 sacks and have shown the tendency to attack from absolutely everywhere. Sixteen different players have gone in on those 22 sacks, with nobody recording more than 2.5.

Against the three best quarterbacks on the schedule thus far, Ole Miss has done remarkably well. Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, Alabama's A.J. McCarron and Arkansas' Tyler Wilson combined to average just 5.5 yards per pass attempt with four interceptions and eight sacks. (The only quarterback to absolutely torch the Rebels: Texas' David Ash, at 14.6 yards per pass attempt.) Despite what he showed last weekend, Georgia's Aaron Murray belongs right alongside those players in the SEC's quarterback hierarchy, but if Ole Miss can confuse him and bait him into a couple of mistakes, the Rebels could hang around a while.

Generally speaking, Georgia should expect to win this game and move to within one game (at Auburn) of clinching its second straight SEC East title. The Dawgs should be able to slow down the Ole Miss running game and make the Rebels relatively one-dimensional, and they should be able to run the ball well enough to build (and maintain) a lead.

But the simple fact that there is uncertainty (and a good amount, really), that the matchups are pretty tight even in the areas of Georgia advantage, speaks volumes of the job Hugh Freeze has done in less than a year at Oxford. Ole Miss is dangerous, entertaining and interesting, and with the emergence of both the Rebels and Texas A&M, what was already possibly the best division in college football (the SEC West) has gotten a lot more fun recently.

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