2011 Season Preview: Dairy Queen And The Ole Miss Rebels

Houston Nutt is the face of a lot of things, but if he wants to be the face of Ole Miss football in 2012, he'll need to engineer a bounce-back season this fall with contributions from a lot of newcomers. Can he?

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom.

Houston Nutt can't stay out of his own way sometimes. He thrives when expectations are low, then raises expectations too high to meet them. After a fantastic first season in Oxford in 2008, his Ole Miss Rebels were unfairly billed as a darkhorse national title contender in 2009, making the fact that they only won nine games again a disappointment. So somehow he began 2010 with less goodwill than he had probably earned. Expectations are funny that way. The most likely result following a great one-year surge is slight regression, but we tend to expect yet another surge instead. It is unfair, but you know how I feel about this already -- we've already gone down this road in discussing this year's "surge" team, Texas A&M.

Regardless of the goodwill Nutt did or didn't have, it was not the easiest season to be an Ole Miss fan in 2010. The Rebels plummeted last fall. Oregon quarterback Jeremiah Masoli came to town and was ... okay. The run game: okay. The passing game: okay. The pass defense ... you get the point. Nutt's Rebels were great at almost nothing and terrible at almost nothing in 2010. They just sort of existed. Surprisingly enough, just showing up is not going to win you too many games in the SEC.

But you have to give Nutt credit for one thing: he makes things interesting. He is the Dairy Queen of college football coaches. He doesn't just oversign ... he's the face of oversigning. He doesn't just make crazy faces ... he's the face of crazy faces. He doesn't just suffer upset losses ... he allows 49 points at home to Jacksonville State. He didn't just field a mediocre team in 2010 ... after a terrible start, he fielded the most perfectly mediocre team ever.

And if Nutt wants to be the face of Ole Miss football twelve months from now, he should probably put together a nice bounce-back season.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 4-8 | Adj. Record: 3-9 | Final F/+ Rk**: 63
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep Jacksonville State
48-49 L 29.7 - 39.3 L
11-Sep at Tulane 27-13 W 24.4 - 30.3 L
18-Sep Vanderbilt 14-28 L 20.6 - 32.6 L
25-Sep Fresno State 55-38 W 45.4 - 34.9 W
2-Oct Kentucky 42-35 W 29.7 - 27.7 W
16-Oct at Alabama 10-23 L 16.4 - 17.4 L
23-Oct at Arkansas 24-38 L 26.6 - 27.7 L
30-Oct Auburn 31-51 L 31.5 - 31.7 L
6-Nov UL-Lafayette 43-21 W 32.5 - 18.5 W
13-Nov at Tennessee 14-52 L 19.3 - 33.3 L
20-Nov at LSU 36-43 L 35.5 - 38.8 L
27-Nov Mississippi State 23-31 L 15.7 - 28.4 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 30.6 41 35.2 107
Adj. Points Per Game 27.3 63 30.0 80

Thirty minutes into Ole Miss' 2010 season, everything was going according to plan. The Rebels had scored touchdowns on two of their first eight plays of the season and led FCS' Jacksonville State, 31-10, at halftime. Virtually everything that happened over the final 11.5 games was discouraging in one way or another. It began, of course, with the Rebels allowing a crazy comeback to Jacksonville State, then losing at home to Vanderbilt as well. I know they aim to be accommodating to visitors at The Grove, but come on.

In all, the offense played at an above average level in six of 12 games, and in five of those six games, the defense played at a below average level. The defense squandered offensive gains, the offense wasn't good enough to win shootouts every week (they went 2-3 in games in which both teams scored at least 30 points), and they played at an overall level that suggested they were even lucky to see 4-8. If this were a young team, then this up-and-down season could build toward something, but there were quite a few strong upperclassmen on this squad. In 2011, we get to see if oversigning actually works, I guess, because strong new contributors are an absolute necessity.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 53 85 38
RUSHING 64 98 42 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 49 68 43 81
Standard Downs 79 89 75 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 19 49 8 28
Redzone 44 75 35
Q1 Rk 43 1st Down Rk 68
Q2 Rk 60 2nd Down Rk 47
Q3 Rk 71 3rd Down Rk 48
Q4 Rk 64

Jeremiah Masoli brought to light all that is good and bad about the NCAA's "graduates with eligibility can transfer to another school for one year" rule. (A rule that I like, and a rule the SEC evidently doesn't like.) On the bright side, Masoli was given another opportunity following a tumultuous exit from Oregon and advanced at least a bit toward a graduate degree. On the down side, he had quite a few ups and downs (he obviously wasn't there in the spring, so his first full practices in an Ole Miss jersey came just weeks before the season started, almost like he was a true freshman), and now he's gone.

Nutt never seemed to trust Nathan Stanley, the quarterback who would have been 2010's leader had Masoli not entered the picture. Despite Masoli's departure, Stanley chose to leave Oxford as well this spring, leaving behind almost no experience whatsoever behind center. Into the void, Ole Miss fans hope, steps Randall Mackey, a former four-star athlete who redshirted last season; Mackey threw for almost 2,800 yards and rushed for another 1,000 in his final season at East Mississippi Community College in 2009, throwing 24 touchdown passes (yay!) and 16 interceptions (boo!) along the way.

If Mackey doesn't win the job, it could be West Virginia transfer Barry Brunetti. Both Stanley and Brunetti are run threats, so the run-pass ratios should stay relatively close to what they were last year. With Jevan Snead at quarterback, Nutt still aimed for a run-heavy attack on standard downs (66.9% run on standard downs in 2009), but they let Snead air it out on passing downs (27.9%). I don't see that happening in 2011. Run, run, run, and pass only if you have to. Then again, with the pass-heavy Gunter Brewer now on staff, the opposite could be true. Whoever said I knew what I was talking about?

If the Rebs do run a lot in 2011, this wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, mind you. Perhaps the best thing Ole Miss had going for them last year was underrated running back Brandon Bolden (976 yards, 6.0 per carry, 14 TD; 344 receiving yards, 3 TD), whose plus-24.5 Adj. POE was sixth-best in the country. He is a lovely weapon out of the backfield.

Other tidbits:

  • Fun with targets and catches: Markeith Summers (575 receiving yards, 20.5 per catch) appeared to be the star of the Ole Miss receiving corps last year, but his catch rate was a ghastly 41%. He was one of the country's great boom-or-bust options. His departure might not be a bad thing, as it could mean more targets for Melvin Harris (408 yards, 13.6 per catch, 63% catch rate) and Ja-Mes Logan (387 yards, 13.3 per catch, 76% catch rate).

    Yards Per Target, 2010
    Summers 8.5
    Harris 8.5
    Logan 10.2

    Summers was a primary reason why Ole Miss was so dangerous on passing downs, but with more reliable options, the Rebels might be able to avoid ranking so poorly on standard downs and needing big plays on passing downs. If Harris and Logan emerge and one or two players from a nice class of incoming receivers are ready to contribute, then this unit is much deeper than it was a year ago.
  • The offensive line was not much of a bright spot in 2010, but they should be much more experienced. They return, basically, four and a half starters (right guard Jared Duke started five games as a freshman last year), three of whom got their first starting experience last year. This shouldn't be a strength, but with experience and a good left tackle in Bradley Sowell, it shouldn't be nearly as much of a weakness either.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 55 44 65
RUSHING 55 51 57 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 59 37 70 28
Standard Downs 53 41 61 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 86 80 87 29
Redzone 112 92 115
Q1 Rk 42 1st Down Rk 63
Q2 Rk 33 2nd Down Rk 45
Q3 Rk 39 3rd Down Rk 78
Q4 Rk 118

The Ole Miss defense was a rather confusing one in 2010. They had a strong line that ranked in the top 30 of both Adj. Line Yards and Adj. Sack Rate, but they were a complete sieve in the redzone. They were rather efficient on standard downs but, despite a decent pass rush, extremely inefficient on passing downs. Their mentality seemed to change from play to play, and considering they had what seemed like decent depth of playmakers, they just couldn't make enough stops.

Things might get more difficult in 2011. The line may have been a strength, but now the Rebels will have to make do without their two primary contributors at defensive tackle. Jerrell Powe (22.5 tackles, 8.5 TFL/sacks) is gone after what seemed like nine years in a Rebel uniform, and Ted Laurent (15.0 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks) departs as well. Nutt and defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix will have to make do with redshirt freshmen and junior college transfers at tackle this year. Be on the lookout, particularly, for redshirt freshman Carlton Martin (a former four-star signee) and JUCO transfer Uriah Grant, who racked up 17 TFL/sacks at Fullerton Community College last year.

The good news is the Rebs should still be in solid shape at end. Three of their four primary ends -- Jason Jones, Wayne Dorsey, Gerald Rivers (combined: 33.0 tackles, 12.5 TFL/sacks) -- return from last year's squad, but more importantly, Kentrell Lockett (31.0 tackles, 10.0 TFL/sacks in 2009) is back after missing last season with injury. As you can see from the cumulative tackle numbers, the primary job of Ole Miss' line is to eat up blockers and free the linebackers up to make the tackle, and that's fine. But making a few plays yourself isn't a bad thing, and Lockett and maybe Grant represent the most high-potential playmakers on the line.

Even if the line is able to hold steady, however, there is talent to replace elsewhere as well. Linebackers Jonathan Cornell (60.0 tackles, 14.0 TFL/sacks, 2 PBU) and Allen Walker (41.5 tackles, 7.5 TFL/sacks, 3 FF, 4 PBU) were both stellar senior playmakers last year, and D.T. Shackelford (37.5 tackles, 9.0 TFL/sacks) is out for the season. That leaves 2010 backups Joel Kight (27.5 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks) and Mike Marry (18.0 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks, 2 FR as a freshman) and a ton of newcomers. Five-star inside linebacker C.J. Johnson could do Nutt a huge favor by being ready to rock and roll from day one.

Other tidbits:

  • The pass defense was a bit leaky despite a decent rush from the front seven. Whoever replaces safeties Johnny Brown and Fon Ingram (combined: 105.0 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 6 PBU) will need to make sure that, at the very least, Ole Miss doesn't regress even further in this regard. It appears the Rebels have two decent, if less aggressive, corners in Charles Sawyer and Marcus Temple (combined: 79.5 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 3 FR, 5 PBU), but safety play is definitely a concern. As would probably be expected, Nutt looked toward the JUCO ranks to shore up this weakness.
  • In 2008, Ole Miss ranked 16th in Def. Rushing S&P+; in 2009, they ranked 12th in Def. Passing S&P+. As much as players like Dexter McCluster and Jevan Snead were responsible for the Rebels' initial success under Nutt, the defense was equally instrumental, and it regressed almost as significantly as the offense in 2010. Recruits like C.J. Johnson and JUCOs at both DL and DB could help, but if you are relying on newcomers to bail you out immediately, more often than not you probably aren't looking at significant improvement.

Ole Miss's 2010 Season Set to Music

How about "Patron Saint of the Mediocre," by the 1900s? That, or "Still Crazy After All These Years."

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Here.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 42
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 22
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** -6 / -7.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 14 (9, 5)
Yds/Pt Margin***** +1.7

Hope is not lost in Oxford, but the Rebels are certainly scrambling. If some newcomers -- Randall Mackey, C.J. Johnson, one of the JUCO DBs, one of the receivers, one of the young defensive tackles -- live up to potential, then this team could surprise. They do return quite a bit of experience (even if it's not all good experience), their YPP margin suggests they were at least a bit unlucky, and their recruiting averages are strong. Clearly there might be some talent here. (Lord knows, if you're going to be the face of oversigning, you should at least put a quality product on the field.)

No matter what, we'll know what we are looking at by October 1. With tough-but-winnable home games against BYU and Georgia and equally-tough-but-winnable road games against Vanderbilt and Fresno State, Ole Miss could start anywhere between 1-4 and 5-0 (and yes, I'm counting Southern Illinois as a win despite Jacksonville State). Nutt has the reputation for thriving with lower expectations, and ... well, the expectations are quite low. He has 'em right where he wants 'em!

 

 

---

* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

*****Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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