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The big 2014 Ole Miss football guide: Time for a 3rd step forward

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With a superb defense alone, Ole Miss should be able to match last year's eight wins in Hugh Freeze's third season. The offense will dictate whether the ceiling is eight wins, nine wins, or something far greater.

SB Nation 2014 College Football Countdown

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1. Tick tock

In 2013, Ole Miss will still be a work in progress. We should keep that in mind. We're still trying to figure out the Rebels' ceiling in an environment where the No. 7 recruiting class in the country (according to Rivals) was barely third in their own division. Ole Miss will still be ridiculously young this fall -- hell, with all of the star freshmen entering the rotation, the Rebels will actually be younger than they were last year -- and that's not typically a prompt for great success.

-- 2013 Ole Miss football's 10 things to know

We tend to think of the college football success and recruiting in a linear way -- one improves, then the other improves; if one regresses, then the other regresses.

In the SEC over the last couple of seasons, the waters have gotten muddy. Tennessee went 5-7 and signed a top-10 class while Kentucky went 2-10 and signed a top-20 class. And coming off of a 2-10 season in Houston Nutt's final year in Oxford, Ole Miss hired Hugh Freeze, who was in the process of signing a top-10 class even before his first Rebels team improved to 7-6. Massive momentum plus outstanding recruiting equals even more massive momentum, right?

But after pulling in an unpredictably great class last February, things settled into a more predictable pattern. Ole Miss played a ton of young guys and improved again in 2013, which is an incredible feat in and of itself. But recruiting settled in a bit (to 15th), and after improving from 100th to 40th in the F/+ rankings, the Rebels settled in a bit on the field. The offense held steady, while a defensive step forward bumped them up to 28th overall. A late-season loss at Mississippi State tamped down some of the good feelings, but there was no mistaking that Ole Miss progressed.

So now what? The offense is in a state of flux between new and old talent -- Nutt holdovers Jeff Scott, Donte Moncrief, Ja-Mes Logan and experienced linemen are gone, while a load of four-star freshmen and sophomores jockey for roles -- and the defense could be outstanding. I don't see the stars aligning just yet, because of the O, but defense alone could make this a top-20 team. Is that enough to stand out in the absurdly loaded SEC West?

A bigger question: will the stars align? And what does that really even mean? Robert Nkemdiche, the No. 1 recruit in the 2013 class and the impetus for a lot of Ole Miss' recruiting success that year, is probably in uniform for another two seasons. With a top-10 class come top-10 expectations, but if you only sign one top-10 class and it runs out of eligibility while you're getting other affairs in order, what's fair?

Hugh Freeze has been a massive success in inheriting a mess of a program, turning it into a bowl squad overnight, and raising the bar with recruiting success. But at what point does he fail to meet the raised bar? It wouldn't be fair to expect too much in Year 3, but another seven- to eight-win season -- a distinct possibility for a team that is top-20 caliber in the SEC West -- would increase the pressure for Year 4. It's an odd situation, increasing expectations to the point at which it backfires, but here we are.

2013 Schedule & Results

Record: 8-5 | Adj. Record: 10-3 | Final F/+ Rk: 28
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L 5-gm Adj. Avg.
29-Aug at Vanderbilt 50 39-35 W 36.9 - 32.9 W
7-Sep SE Missouri State N/A 31-13 W 21.5 - 41.3 L
14-Sep at Texas 35 44-23 W 39.9 - 23.7 W
28-Sep at Alabama 2 0-25 L 18.5 - 19.7 L
5-Oct at Auburn 4 22-30 L 21.1 - 20.3 W 0.0
12-Oct Texas A&M 23 38-41 L 28.4 - 27.7 W -0.7
19-Oct LSU 17 27-24 W 38.1 - 24.6 W 6.0
26-Oct Idaho 116 59-14 W 33.7 - 22.0 W 5.1
9-Nov Arkansas 87 34-24 W 31.9 - 29.7 W 5.8
16-Nov Troy 105 51-21 W 37.3 - 23.2 W 8.4
23-Nov Missouri 14 10-24 L 26.6 - 27.8 L 8.1
28-Nov at Mississippi State 33 10-17 L 20.4 - 14.9 W 6.5
30-Dec vs. Georgia Tech 34 25-17 W 32.3 - 18.6 W 6.9
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk Spec. Tms. Rk
F/+ +5.3% 41 +12.0% 20 -1.2% 92
Points Per Game 30.0 56 23.7 37
Adj. Points Per Game 29.7 55 25.1 37

2. Average, then good

As might be expected when playing so many freshmen and tweaking the rotation from week to week, Ole Miss had to ease into playing good ball in 2013. The Rebels pulled off a thrilling opening-night win over Vanderbilt and soundly defeated Texas, both on the road; no complaints there.

But the offense and defense struggled to play well simultaneously. The defense got wrecked by Jordan Matthews at Vandy, and the offense laid eggs against both Alabama and Auburn.

Inconsistency combined with a three-game losing streak (all to top-25 teams) can spell doom for a young team, but to the Rebels' credit, they rallied. Starting with the upset of LSU on October 19, the Rebs became a more consistent, awfully good team.

  • Adj. Points Per Game (first 6 games): Ole Miss 27.7, Opponent 27.6 (plus-0.1)
  • Adj. Points Per Game (last 7 games): Ole Miss 31.5, Opponent 23.0 (plus-8.5)

The offense trailed off at the end of the regular season, but this was still what you would hope to see from a young team: battle-tested improvement over the second half of the year. The baseline after the bowl game was higher than the baseline at midseason.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.18 46 IsoPPP+ 102.4 48
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 44.5% 53 Succ. Rt. + 100.3 61
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 30.0 70 Def. FP+ 101.4 41
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.2 76 Redzone S&P+ 106.7 37
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 26.6 ACTUAL 21 -5.6
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 21 54 62 30
RUSHING 42 55 50 40
PASSING 23 50 64 32
Standard Downs 77 81 93
Passing Downs 23 34 17
Q1 Rk 47 1st Down Rk 106
Q2 Rk 81 2nd Down Rk 15
Q3 Rk 31 3rd Down Rk 55
Q4 Rk 75

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2014 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Bo Wallace 6'4, 217 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 283 437 3346 18 10 64.8% 24 5.2% 6.9
Barry Brunetti 23 41 294 6 0 56.1% 2 4.7% 6.5
Ryan Buchanan 6'3, 208 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8)
DeVante Kincade 6'0, 202 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7)
Kendrick Doss 6'0, 211 Fr. 3 stars (5.7)

3. Dr. Bo approaches retirement

Even after two years of Bo Wallace as Ole Miss' starting quarterback, it's hard to figure out what the Rebels have. At his best, he is a crippling dual-threat. In the bowl win over Georgia Tech, he completed two thirds of his passes for 256 yards while rushing 11 times (not including sacks) for 95 yards. And against a wretched Troy defense, he averaged 10.5 yards per pass attempt and 7.3 yards per carry.

At his worst, he is a liability, flustered and careless with the ball. Against Mississippi State, his 26 completions gained just 182 yards, and he threw three interceptions, took two sacks, and lost a fumble on the final play.

In 13 games in 2013, Wallace produced an average passer rating of 138.1. But only once all season did he actually come within 10 points of his season average (he was at 140.0 in the bowl game). He was at 151.4 or higher seven times and at 116.5 or lower five times.

He has the tendency of collecting injuries as the season rolls on, which doesn't help. But if he is a steady force this fall, even with a lower ceiling, that could do wonders for Ole Miss' overall consistency.

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Carry
Opp.
Rate
Jaylen Walton RB 5'8, 166 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 113 531 6 4.7 4.9 31.9%
Bo Wallace QB 6'4, 217 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 107 509 6 4.8 4.2 38.3%
I'Tavius Mathers RB 5'11, 190 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 96 564 3 5.9 6.4 40.6%
Jeff Scott RB 67 493 2 7.4 6.2 55.2%
Barry Brunetti QB 58 326 4 5.6 5.5 41.4%
Mark Dodson RB 5'10, 198 So. 4 stars (5.9) 22 124 1 5.6 3.9 50.0%
Kailo Moore RB 18 72 0 4.0 6.1 27.8%
Jimmy Potepa RB 5'8, 200 Jr. NR 5 15 0 3.0 1.0 40.0%
Robert Nkemdiche DE 6'4, 280 So. 5 stars (6.1) 5 32 0 6.4 5.4 60.0%
Jordan Wilkins RB 6'1, 201 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8)
Akeem Judd RB 6'0, 220 Jr. 3 stars (5.7)
D.K. Buford RB 5'11, 200 Fr. 3 stars (5.7)

Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
%SD Yds/
Target
NEY Real Yds/
Target
RYPR
Donte Moncrief WR 112 59 938 52.7% 24.7% 50.5% 8.4 143 8.2 117.9
Laquon Treadwell WR 6'2, 229 So. 5 stars (6.1) 97 72 608 74.2% 21.4% 72.6% 6.3 -205 6.4 76.4
Ja-Mes Logan WR 59 44 583 74.6% 13.0% 49.2% 9.9 87 9.9 73.3
Jaylen Walton RB 5'8, 166 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 35 27 306 77.1% 7.7% 33.3% 8.7 6 8.1 38.4
Vince Sanders WR 6'1, 185 Sr. 4 stars (5.9) 30 21 325 70.0% 6.6% 43.3% 10.8 81 10.9 40.8
Evan Engram TE 6'3, 217 So. 3 stars (5.6) 29 21 268 72.4% 6.4% 51.7% 9.2 28 9.4 33.7
Jordan Holder WR 22 15 128 68.2% 4.8% 50.0% 5.8 -49 5.5 16.1
Jeff Scott RB 19 16 107 84.2% 4.2% 52.6% 5.6 -64 5.7 13.4
I'Tavius Mathers RB 5'11, 190 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 15 11 90 73.3% 3.3% 60.0% 6.0 -35 6.3 11.3
Quincy Adeboyejo SLOT 6'3, 189 So. 4 stars (5.8) 13 7 81 53.8% 2.9% 80.0% 6.2 -12 4.7 10.2
Collins Moore WR 6'1, 201 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 10 5 67 50.0% 2.2% N/A 6.7 -2 0.0 8.4
Cody Core WR 6'3, 196 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 5 4 91 80.0% 1.1% 100.0% 18.2 47 15.3 11.4
Nicholas Parker TE 6'0, 250 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 3 2 11 66.7% 0.7% 66.7% 3.7 -13 4.4 1.4
Channing Ward TE 6'4, 274 Jr. 4 stars (6.0)
Quintavius Burdette SLOT 5'11, 186 Jr. 2 stars (5.2)
Jeremy Liggins TE 6'3, 296 So. 3 stars (5.7)
Markell Pack WR 6'3, 181 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)
Sammie Epps TE 6'5, 215 Fr. 3 stars (5.7)

4. Replacing the passing-downs masters

Ole Miss' passing game on standard and passing downs was drastically different. On standard downs, the Rebels attempted strength and balance, rushing frequently and throwing to big five-star freshman Laquon Treadwell, whose standard-downs target rate was a lofty 30 percent.

This wasn't particularly effective. The run game was only decent, and despite his blue-chip status, Treadwell was basically a tight end, with an 81 percent standard-downs catch rate and a mild per-catch average of 7.6 yards.

That resulted in quite a few passing downs. And on passing downs, Ole Miss was awesome.

The Rebs went pass-heavy, which put a lot of pressure on Wallace, and it paid off frequently. With Treadwell relegated to the No. 3 option, just ahead of running back Jaylen Walton, Wallace fired downfield to Donte Moncrief and Ja-Mes Logan, who responded by combining to average 17.6 yards per catch and 10.5 yards per target.

Ole Miss' passing game was actually better when opponents expected the Rebels to pass. It's not supposed to work that way, and it's alarming for 2014. Treadwell's back, but Moncrief and Logan are not. The Rebels do have a big-play holdover in senior Vince Sanders, who caught 15 of 17 passing-downs passes for 183 yards; he was a big part of the 2012 offense before breaking his collarbone and missing most of the first month of 2013. If he shines again, that could take pressure off of both Wallace and Treadwell.

It's unclear if the running game will be any better, though. Jaylen Walton is an unspectacular No. 1 back, and I'Tavius Mathers hasn't been able to stay on the field despite strong averages (that usually means he either stinks in practice or stinks at pass protection). Between those two juniors, four-star sophomore Mark Dodson, JUCO transfer Akeem Judd, and incoming freshman D.K. Buford, Ole Miss has options. It's unclear if any of them are A-grade options.

Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs
LY/carry
Pass.
Downs
LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Team 103.3 3.17 3.36 40.2% 66.1% 17.7% 116.1 2.8% 7.4%
Rank 51 29 53 58 76 43 50 20 74
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Career Starts Honors/Notes
Evan Swindall C 35
Pierce Burton RT 26
Aaron Morris LG 6'5, 345 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 20
Jared Duke LG 17
Emmanuel McCray LT 16
Justin Bell RG 6'2, 352 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 13
Patrick Junen LG 11
Laremy Tunsil LT 6'5, 305 So. 5 stars (6.1) 10
Carlton Martin LG 6'1, 296 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0
Ben Still C 6'3, 298 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0
Robert Conyers RT 6'5, 295 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0
Daronte Bouldin RG 6'6, 330 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6)
Davion Johnson RT 6'4, 332 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5)
Fahn Cooper OL 6'5, 312 Jr. 3 stars (5.7)
Craig Frigo LG 6'4, 301 Jr. 2 stars (5.3)
Talbot Buys LT 6'8, 306 So. NR
Rod Taylor OL 6'3, 320 Fr. 4 stars (5.9)

5. Younger and better?

You know something went wrong when you end up starting eight linemen in a season, with two returning starters combining for just five starts. That either means injuries or shuffling related to ineffective play.

For Ole Miss, it was a bit of both; guard Aaron Morris tore his ACL in August, and left tackle Emmanuel McCray was usurped by ace freshman Laremy Tunsil after three games. The result is a confusing mix of experience and inexperience: Ole Miss returns three players who have started at least 10 career games (including Tunsil) but replace five who had started at least 11.

With simple stability and continuity, Ole Miss' line stats should improve. Tunsil gives the Rebels plenty of upside, as does a healthy Morris. And even though Wallace will always be a bit sack-prone behind center (play-making ability usually comes with a price in that regard), it wouldn't surprise me if Ole Miss finished 2014 in at least the top 40 in both Adj. Line Yards and Adj. Sack Rate after hovering around 50th in both last fall.

Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.05 20 IsoPPP+ 114.1 10
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 43.2% 72 Succ. Rt. + 107.6 34
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 26.6 113 Off. FP+ 95.4 109
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.0 52 Redzone S&P+ 99.2 63
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 21.3 ACTUAL 22.0 +0.7
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 38 18 34 17
RUSHING 52 14 30 16
PASSING 36 27 47 46
Standard Downs 17 34 8
Passing Downs 22 43 16
Q1 Rk 31 1st Down Rk 24
Q2 Rk 10 2nd Down Rk 35
Q3 Rk 35 3rd Down Rk 8
Q4 Rk 42

6. The defense got a step ahead

The Ole Miss offense graded out alright overall, but the defense made significant, sustainable advances in 2013.

Defensive coordinator Dave Wommack employs what could be considered a risky 4-2-5 alignment -- with a 4-2-5, there's a lot of pressure on the line to play really well and allow the back seven to take advantage of its sacrifice of size for speed. If you're getting pushed around up front, things go sour more quickly in this alignment than others, but if you've got a strong line, the defense is set up for success.

("If you've got a strong line, the defense is set up for success." That's something you could say about any formation, yes. But go with me here.)

Well, Ole Miss had a very good line in 2013, at least as it pertained to run defense. The Rebels didn't generate much of a pass rush, but you can overcome that to a degree with speed and coverage ability. But even despite injuries -- all-world freshman Robert Nkemdiche missed two games, end C.J. Johnson missed nine, tackle Bryon Bennett missed two, tackle Lavon Hooks missed one, end Carlos Thompson missed eight -- Ole Miss was a brick wall against the run. Force teams to pass into the teeth of a permanent nickel defense, and you're going to find success.

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs
LY/carry
Pass.
Downs
LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Team 123.8 2.67 3.01 36.5% 75.6% 21.8% 79.2 4.6% 3.8%
Rank 6 30 31 38 103 30 102 56 115
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Cameron Whigham DE 13 29.5 4.1% 4.5 2.5 0 1 1 0
Robert Nkemdiche DT 6'4, 280 So. 5 stars (6.1) 11 29.5 4.1% 8.0 2.0 0 2 0 0
Issac Gross NT 6'1, 250 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 13 26.5 3.6% 9.0 3.5 0 1 0 0
Woodrow Hamilton NT 6'3, 315 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 13 23.5 3.2% 1.5 1.0 0 1 0 0
Channing Ward DE 13 18.5 2.5% 2.0 1.0 0 0 2 0
C.J. Johnson DE 6'2, 225 Sr. 5 stars (6.1) 4 9.0 1.2% 4.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Bryon Bennett DT 6'2, 293 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 11 7.0 1.0% 2.0 1.0 0 0 1 0
Lavon Hooks DT 6'3, 318 Sr. 4 stars (6.0) 12 7.0 1.0% 2.5 1.0 0 0 0 0
Carlos Thompson DE 6'5, 243 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 5 4.5 0.6% 0.5 0.5 0 0 0 0
John Youngblood DE 6'3, 246 So. 2 stars (5.4) 12 3.0 0.4% 1.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Carlton Martin DT 10 2.0 0.3% 0.5 0.5 0 0 0 0
Fadol Brown DE 6'4, 280 So. 3 stars (5.5)
Garrald McDowell DE 6'2, 245 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)
Breeland Speaks DT 6'4, 310 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)
Marquis Haynes DE 6'3, 220 Fr. 3 stars (5.7)
Chris Williams DT 6'1, 287 Fr. 3 stars (5.7)

7. Immovable

Freeze came to prominence because of his offensive mind, but in two years his defense has stolen the show in Oxford, partially because of who Houston Nutt was able to attract, and partially because his own recruiting has been heavy on stud defensive linemen.

Nkemdiche was obviously the biggest get, but he has also landed four-star end Channing Ward (part of the abbreviated 2012 class), high-three-star tackle Issac Gross (2012), four-star JUCO tackle Lavon Hooks (2013), four-star end Breeland Sparks (2014), and four-star tackle Garrald McDowell (2014).

Combined with what he inherited, his line is absolutely loaded with both heralded signees and proven studs. And despite a general lack of SEC-prototype beef, his line was superb against the run. Part of that had to do with big Mike Marry at middle linebacker, but a lot had to do with returnees like Nkemdiche, Gross, and Woodrow Hamilton. Even without Marry, there's really no reason to think Ole Miss will be more movable in 2014 than it was in 2013.

Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Serderius Bryant OLB 5'9, 220 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 11 65.0 8.9% 12.5 2.0 0 1 3 0
Mike Marry MLB 13 41.5 5.7% 4.5 1.0 0 1 3 0
D.T. Shackelford MLB 6'1, 247 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 13 32.5 4.5% 7.5 2.0 0 0 0 0
Denzel Nkemdiche OLB 5'11, 212 Jr. NR 10 26.0 3.6% 2.0 0.0 0 0 1 1
Keith Lewis OLB 6'0, 220 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 13 19.0 2.6% 3.0 0.0 1 1 0 0
Temario Strong MLB 6'0, 233 So. 3 stars (5.6) 13 7.5 1.0% 1.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Will Martin LB 13 1.5 0.2% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Christian Russell MLB 6'0, 235 Jr. 3 stars (5.7)
DeMarquis Gates LB 6'2, 211 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Cody Prewitt FS 6'2, 217 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 13 60.5 8.3% 4.5 0 6 7 2 0
Tony Conner NB 6'0, 217 So. 4 stars (6.0) 13 52.5 7.2% 5 1 1 6 0 0
Trae Elston ROV 6'0, 195 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 13 52.0 7.1% 2 0 0 6 1 0
Mike Hilton CB 5'9, 182 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 11 44.5 6.1% 5.5 0 1 4 1 0
Senquez Golson CB 5'9, 176 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 12 36.0 4.9% 2.5 0 2 3 0 0
Chief Brown ROV 6'1, 200 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 13 28.5 3.9% 0 0 1 0 0 0
Derrick Jones CB 6'2, 182 So. 3 stars (5.7) 9 23.5 3.2% 1 0 0 2 0 0
Dehendret Collins NB 13 18.0 2.5% 0.5 0 0 2 0 1
Carlos Davis CB 5'8, 171 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 7 12.0 1.6% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Charles Sawyer CB 7 10.0 1.4% 0 0 1 1 0 0
Cliff Coleman CB 5'10, 186 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 13 7.0 1.0% 1 0 0 0 0 0
Quintavius Burdette CB 12 3.0 0.4% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Ontario Berry DB 12 2.5 0.3% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Anthony Standifer DB 3 2.5 0.3% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Kailo Moore CB 5'10, 188 So. 4 stars (5.8)
Anthony Alford ROV 6'1, 212 So. 4 stars (5.8)
Tee Shepard DB 6'1, 195 So. 4 stars (5.8)
C.J. Hampton FS 6'0, 192 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)

8. A great secondary is experienced now

Hey, we finally joined Facebook!

Ole Miss ranked 14th in Rushing S&P+, in part, because of the defensive line. And with a shaky pass rush, the Rebels ranked 27th in Passing S&P+ despite the line.

The Rebels were deep and aggressive in the secondary. DB depth is another requirement of a 4-2-5, but the play-making was a bonus. Ole Miss had 11 defensive backs with at least seven tackles, five with at least two tackles for loss, and five with at least five passes defensed. And backup nickel back Dehendret Collins is basically the biggest loss.

Even with Denzel Nkemdiche struggling through a disappointing 2013 season after his breakthrough 2012 (one that didn't hurt Ole Miss' chances of landing his little/big brother Robert), the Rebels had more than enough speed to go around. Serderius Bryant erupted in Nkemdiche's OLB role, corner Mike Hilton and Senquez Golden combined eight tackles for loss with 10 passes defensed, and big safeties Cody Prewitt and Tony Conner prowled.

This was an excellent secondary, and there's no reason it won't get even better, especially considering the four-star freshmen and sophomores just waiting their turn if somebody gets hurt. The whole two-deep is loaded with either proven play-makers or high-profile youngsters hoping for a shot.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Tyler Campbell 51 44.4 10 10 17 52.9%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Andrew Ritter 78 63.8 45 2 57.7%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2014
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Andrew Ritter 42-45 9-14 64.3% 7-10 70.0%
Andrew Fletcher 5'8, 180 Sr. 2-2 0-0 N/A 0-0 N/A
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Jaylen Walton KR 5'8, 166 Jr. 25 20.6 0
Kailo Moore KR 5'10, 188 So. 5 20.0 0
Jeff Scott PR 7 12.7 1
Jordan Holder PR 5 4.2 0
Category Rk
Special Teams F/+ 92
Field Goal Efficiency 81
Punt Return Efficiency 93
Kick Return Efficiency 91
Punt Efficiency 61
Kickoff Efficiency 51
Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency 102

9. A (needed) special teams reset

Just about everything has changed since Freeze took over. An offense that ranked 110th in Off. F/+ in 2011 has finished 41st or better two years in a row, a defense that ranked 78th is a legitimate top-20 unit and rising ... and a special teams unit that ranked 13th in 2011 has ranked 92nd or worse for two straight years.

Ole Miss wasn't a very good field position team in 2013, in large part because its kicks and punts were average and its returns were far below average. Field goals were subpar as well. In 2014, two unsuccessful kick returners are back, but all of the other primary roles will be filled by different players. That doesn't mean improvement is impending -- far from it. But if you're going to hit reset on special teams, there's not a lot of fear in doing it when the unit wasn't very good.

2014 Schedule & Projection Factors

2014 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. Rk
28-Aug vs. Boise State 23
6-Sep at Vanderbilt 61
13-Sep UL-Lafayette 84
27-Sep Memphis 90
4-Oct Alabama 2
11-Oct at Texas A&M 11
18-Oct Tennessee 55
25-Oct at LSU 12
1-Nov Auburn 8
8-Nov Presbyterian NR
22-Nov at Arkansas 53
29-Nov Mississippi State 26
Five-Year F/+ Rk 5.2% (46)
Two-Year Recruiting Rk 12
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin* 1 / -5.3
TO Luck/Game +2.4
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 14 (5, 9)

10. Fast start, fast finish

Ole Miss' first four games come against three teams projected 61st or worse and a Boise State team that is probably over-projected at 23rd. Two of the last three games come against teams projected 53rd or worse. If the Rebels are indeed a top-25 team in 2014, as both the numbers and I expect, this should give them six wins as a starting point. Throw in home wins over Tennessee (probable) and Mississippi State (not as likely, but still likely), and that's eight wins.

The season, then, will get defined by the other four: visits to Texas A&M and LSU and visits from Alabama and Auburn. A top-25 team could go 0-4 in those games.

I really, really like the Ole Miss defense. I love that the Rebels do something a little bit different in their alignment, and I love that it works. They will have one of the better defenses in the country's best defensive conference. But you've got to be great on both sides of the ball to move too far up the SEC West ladder (or, in Auburn's case last year, you have to be good on one side and transcendent on the other), and I don't trust the offense enough to predict that.

Nine wins are on the table, whether via an 8-4 finish and a win in a decent bowl or otherwise.

Again, with great recruiting come great expectations, and maybe a nine-win seasons would be a bit disappointing in Oxford. But it shouldn't be. This team has risen quickly and is still rising, and after a third straight step forward, the Rebs might be in position to take a fourth step in 2015.