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Why Ole Miss will remain college football's most fascinating team in 2016

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One of the country's most talented teams faces a punishing schedule, an NCAA cloud, and the loss of some huge names. It'll be fun!

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Check out the advanced-stats glossary here. Below, a unique review of last year's team, a unit-by-unit breakdown of this year's roster, the full 2016 schedule with win projections for each game, and more.

1. Ole Miss is never, ever boring

Let's start with a flashback to my 2012 team preview.

The Ole Miss of the present tense has battled a spectacular case of bipolarity, capable of greatness, but only fleetingly.

Now Hugh Freeze steps in. Freeze's résumé is nearly flawless -- 30-8 career record as a head coach (at two programs that combined for a 7-16 record in the years before he took over), strong offensive resume, delightful grasp of the hybrid positions that are currently en vogue -- but it also fits on just one page. And in hiring him, Ole Miss somehow managed to be both conservative (he came cheaper than other candidates) and ambitious. But contradiction has been the name of the game in Oxford for most of the last half-century.

The Rebels find ways to stand out, for better or worse. Their last seven coaches:

  1. Billy Brewer, who led the Rebels to five winning seasons and three bowl wins and got them wrecked by NCAA probation.
  2. Joe Lee Dunn, Brewer's defensive coordinator who coached for just one 4-7 season (1994) and ended up at Mississippi State by 1996.
  3. Tommy Tuberville, who guided the Rebels through probation, led them to bowls, announced "they'll have to carry me out of here in a pine box" in response to rumors, then left for Auburn two days later.
  4. David Cutcliffe, who kept Eli Manning at home, led Ole Miss to five consecutive winning seasons (the first time that had happened since John Vaught's last five years), and got fired after a single losing season.
  5. Ed Orgeron, who is Ed Orgeron.
  6. Houston Nutt, who is Houston Nutt.
  7. Freeze, who had just six years of college experience, one third of it at Lambuth, a defunct NAIA program.

Freeze inherited a program that had won six games in two years, and he won seven games in 2012, eight in 2013, nine in 2014, and 10 in 2015. He has built a deep, physical squad that is almost as marvelous in failure as it is in increasing success.

In 2014, Freeze's Rebels were the best team in the country through two months, then crashed in amazing fashion, losing via last-minute interception at LSU, then to Auburn when their star receiver suffered a significant injury and fumbled millimeters before the game-winning touchdown. They finished by getting humiliated by TCU in the Peach Bowl.

In 2015, they dealt with injuries and suspensions to nearly every star, shuffled their offensive line and defense constantly, beat eventual national champion Alabama (in Tuscaloosa!) for the second straight year, and lost to Memphis four weeks later. They rallied, lost the best game of the 2015 season, 53-52, to Arkansas, and then beat LSU, Mississippi State, and Oklahoma State by a combined 60 points.

They then watched their star left tackle seemingly admit on live TV to getting paid under the table.

Never boring.

The Rebs enter 2016 in an interesting place. They are 12th in the Coaches Poll, and because of last season's injuries and suspensions, they got a lot of players experience and are perhaps better suited to handle the loss of stars like Laremy Tunsil, Laquon Treadwell, and Robert Nkemdiche than they would have otherwise been.

They could get hit with the NCAA's sanctions hammer at any moment between tomorrow and about 2019, but before they inevitably deal with scholarship reductions, Freeze and company have built a roster with both experience and thrilling young talent in every unit.

They might fall drastically short of expectations. They might win the SEC. They might be banned from the postseason by November. They are endlessly fascinating.

This is Bill C's daily preview series, working its way through every 2016 team. Catch up on the SEC so far!

2015 Schedule & Results

Record: 10-3 | Adj. Record: 12-1 | Final F/+ Rk: 5 | Final S&P+ Rk: 5
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Percentile
Performance
Win
Expectancy
vs. S&P+ Performance
vs. Vegas
5-Sep UT-Martin N/A 76-3 W 97% 100% +40.2
12-Sep Fresno State 103 73-21 W 99% 100% +18.4 +23.0
19-Sep at Alabama 1 43-37 W 92% 92% +13.6 +13.0
26-Sep Vanderbilt 83 27-16 W 75% 91% -19.4 -14.0
3-Oct at Florida 27 10-38 L 7% 0% -36.5 -35.5
10-Oct New Mexico State 118 52-3 W 98% 100% +22.3 +5.5
17-Oct at Memphis 41 24-37 L 58% 44% -21.6 -23.5
24-Oct Texas A&M 34 23-3 W 96% 100% +15.0 +14.0
31-Oct at Auburn 33 27-19 W 74% 83% -6.8 +0.5
7-Nov Arkansas 11 52-53 L 81% 83% -12.5 -12.0
21-Nov LSU 10 38-17 W 93% 99% +15.1 +16.5
28-Nov at Mississippi State 16 38-27 W 91% 97% +9.3 +10.0
1-Jan vs. Oklahoma State 40 48-20 W 96% 100% +19.9 +20.5

Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
S&P+ 41.6 10 20.5 22
Points Per Game 40.8 8 22.6 33

2. A commendable rebound

The biggest difference in Ole Miss' 2015 was resilience. The 2014 Rebels were strong, but once they had their heart broken, they crumbled. It was understandable -- the way they lost the Auburn game was an all-time stomach punch -- but it was still a missed opportunity. They managed to beat Mississippi State, but the Egg Bowl win came between a 30-point loss to Arkansas and a 39-point loss to TCU.

By midseason 2015, the defense was becoming a disheveled mess. Safety Tony Conner got hurt against Alabama, and linebacker C.J. Johnson got hurt against Florida. Tackles Issac Gross and Herbert Moore had been out for a while. Nkemdiche left the Memphis game with a concussion. Ole Miss was vulnerable, and Memphis took complete advantage, throwing for 384 yards. They scored 37 points -- two weeks after Florida had scored 38 -- and Ole Miss lost for the second time in three weeks.

This time, there was a rebound. Arkansas still exploded for 53 points (45 in regulation), but the Rebs looked mostly awesome down the stretch.

  • First 4 games:
    Record: 4-0 | Average percentile performance: 91% (~top 11) |
  • Next 5 games:
    Record: 3-2 | Average percentile performance: 67% (~top 40) |
  • Last 4 games:
    Record: 3-1 | Average percentile performance: 90% (~top 13) |

The 2015 team was far more mature, and while quite a few of the reasons for that maturity are gone, plenty are back.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.36 26 IsoPPP+ 136.9 2
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 50.4% 4 Succ. Rt. + 128.6 3
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 30.1 72 Def. FP+ 28.0 35
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity 5.1 14 Redzone S&P+ 129.1 2
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 27.3 ACTUAL 23 -4.3
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 10 2 3 2
RUSHING 45 24 13 41
PASSING 10 2 2 3
Standard Downs 2 5 3
Passing Downs 7 2 13
Q1 Rk 1 1st Down Rk 6
Q2 Rk 17 2nd Down Rk 11
Q3 Rk 17 3rd Down Rk 2
Q4 Rk 7

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2016 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Chad Kelly 6'2, 224 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8727 298 458 4042 31 13 65.1% 17 3.6% 8.2
DeVante Kincade 9 15 79 1 0 60.0% 1 6.3% 4.4
Ryan Buchanan 8 13 96 2 1 61.5% 0 0.0% 7.4
Jason Pellerin 6'4, 230 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8772
Shea Patterson 6'2, 200 Fr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9979

3. Lucky and good

Kelly's most memorable pass was also his luckiest. He fielded a bad snap, faced three charging Alabama pass rushers, and threw desperately toward a well-covered Treadwell, who tipped the ball to Quincy Adeboyejo for a long touchdown in an eventual six-point win. It was incredible and fluky as hell.

The play exposed both Kelly's swagger and occasional silliness. The latter backfired on him at times, as he threw 13 interceptions, but his confidence was important. Ole Miss ranked second in Passing S&P+ and did so despite playing half of its season without Tunsil. Kelly plays with the swagger of a guy who has a rap song about himself and declared himself the best QB in the SEC over the summer. I'm pretty sure he's right, and I don't think it's particularly close.

The gunslinger threw for 4,042 yards, and while Treadwell was the bell cow, catching more than twice as many balls as anyone else, the supporting cast was too important to ignore. Six other Rebels caught at least 23 passes, and four of them return.

Damore'ea Stringellow and Adeboyejo are back after combining for 74 catches and 1,107 yards at 9.7 yards per target. So is tight end Evan Engram, one of the early stars of the celebrated 2013 recruiting class, after catching 38 balls last year. It appears slot receiver Markell Pack is going to be out for a little while, but blue-chip redshirt freshman Van Jefferson appeared to have already surpassed him on the depth chart. And as long as one of three four-star freshman receivers is ready to contribute, it appears Ole Miss' receiving corps will be loaded.

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Opp.
Opp.
Rate
Fumbles Fum.
Lost
Jaylen Walton RB 142 730 5 5.1 5.3 38.7% 4 2
Chad Kelly QB 6'2, 224 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8727 90 646 10 7.2 5.3 57.8% 8 2
Akeem Judd RB 5'11, 228 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8781 78 425 3 5.4 4.0 46.2% 0 0
Jordan Wilkins (ineligible) RB 6'1, 215 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9100 72 379 4 5.3 5.7 41.7% 1 1
Eugene Brazley RB 5'9, 192 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8641 21 219 3 10.4 18.1 38.1% 1 1
DeVante Kincade QB 8 95 0 11.9 8.1 75.0% 0 0
D.K. Buford RB 5'11, 227 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8687 7 78 1 11.1 11.6 57.1% 1 1
Robert Nkemdiche DT 4 2 2 0.5 0.0 0.0% 0 0
Jeremy Liggins TE/OL 6'3, 310 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8697 4 1 0 0.3 0.0 0.0% 1 0
Eric Swinney RB 5'9, 210 RSFr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9423
D'Vaughn Pennamon RB 5'11, 218 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9091







4. The run game came around

For the most part, Ole Miss was improving year-to-year despite the run game. It was a constant drag with iffy blocking from the line and all-or-nothing play from the backs.

Perhaps because the passing game was rising so quickly, the run game turned from liability into beautiful complement. Ole Miss ranked 24th in Rushing S&P+, with three backs combining for 22.5 carries per game and 5.3 yards per carry.

Starter Jaylen Walton was probably the least effective of the three, at least on a per-carry basis. Both Akeen Judd and Jordan Wilkins topped him in efficiency, and Wilkins was a little bit more explosive as well. And in a smaller role, Eugene Brazley showed serious jets, though almost all of his production came against UT-Martin and New Mexico State. Between these three and two four-star freshman -- Eric Swinney (redshirt) and D'Vaughn Pennamon (true) -- it's hard to imagine too much of a drop-off from the backs.

So that leaves the line.

Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
Yds/
Target
%SD Success
Rate
IsoPPP
Laquon Treadwell WR 122 83 1165 68.0% 26.2% 9.5 60.7% 58.2% 1.59
Damore'ea Stringfellow WR 6'2, 211 Jr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9653 58 36 503 62.1% 12.5% 8.7 69.0% 51.7% 1.60
Cody Core WR 57 37 644 64.9% 12.3% 11.3 68.4% 57.9% 1.79
Quincy Adeboyejo WR 6'3, 195 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8696 56 38 604 67.9% 12.0% 10.8 76.8% 51.8% 2.01
Evan Engram TE 6'3, 227 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8435 55 38 464 69.1% 11.8% 8.4 50.9% 52.7% 1.42
Markell Pack SLOT 6'2, 184 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9380 40 31 380 77.5% 8.6% 9.5 72.5% 62.5% 1.40
Jaylen Walton RB 32 23 164 71.9% 6.9% 5.1 59.4% 37.5% 1.21
Akeem Judd RB 5'11, 228 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8781 11 9 54 81.8% 2.4% 4.9 45.5% 45.5% 0.85
Derrick Jones WR 6'2, 188 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8392 9 6 120 66.7% 1.9% 13.3 55.6% 55.6% 2.37
Jordan Wilkins RB 6'1, 215 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9100 6 5 75 83.3% 1.3% 12.5 66.7% 50.0% 2.28
Taz Zettergren TE 6'3, 218 Sr. NR NR 6 4 38 66.7% 1.3% 6.3 50.0% 50.0% 1.27
Hunter Thurley TE 6'4, 241 Sr. NR NR 3 2 44 66.7% 0.6% 14.7 66.7% 66.7% 1.90
Jeremy Liggins TE/OL 6'3, 310 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8697 2 1 18 50.0% 0.4% 9.0 50.0% 50.0% 1.93
Trey Bledsoe WR 6'1, 205 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8116
Damarkus Lodge WR 6'2, 190 So. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9807
Van Jefferson SLOT 6'2, 187 RSFr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9489
A.J. Brown WR 6'1, 225 Fr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9792
D.K. Metcalf WR 6'4, 217 Fr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9445
Octavious Cooley TE 6'3, 246 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9242
Tré Nixon WR 6'1, 170 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9224
Gabe Angel TE 6'3, 238 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8911
Jacob Mathis TE 6'4, 233 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8901

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 108.7 2.7 4.42 43.9% 44.4% 22.2% 151.0 2.6% 7.5%
Rank 34 99 1 14 127 101 25 20 72
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. 2015 Starts Career Starts Honors/Notes
Aaron Morris LG 9 40
Justin Bell C 4 30
Laremy Tunsil LT 6 27
Fahn Cooper RT 13 26
Ben Still C 8 20
Robert Conyers C 6'5, 298 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8219 5 8
Sean Rawlings RT 6'5, 282 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8426 7 7
Javon Patterson LG 6'3, 307 So. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9739 6 6
Jordan Sims RG 6'4, 334 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8737 5 5
Rod Taylor LG 6'3, 329 Jr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9758 2 4
Jeremy Liggins LT 6'3, 310 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8697 0 0
Talbot Buys LT 6'8, 320 Sr. NR 0.7900 0 0
Jacob Feeley C 6'2, 282 Sr. NR NR 0 0
Daronte Bouldin RG 6'5, 324 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8453 0 0
Alex Givens LT 6'6, 297 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8669

Michael Howard RT 6'5, 250 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8603

Greg Little OL 6'6, 332 Fr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9991

Bryce Mathews OL 6'6, 275 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9086

Eli Johnson C 6'1, 289 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8706

5. The biggest question mark

This year's good news is last year's bad news. Injury and suspension led to constant shuffling up front for Ole Miss. That the Rebels were prolific despite it was impressive, but there's no question that the line was an issue. The Rebels ranked 127th in power success rate, 101st in stuff rate, and 72nd in passing downs pass rate. At least part of that was because of the quarterback and running backs, but ... those are really bad numbers for an otherwise strong offense.

But that shuffling could be the Rebels' savior in 2016. Yes, five linemen with at least 20 career starts are gone, but five returnees still started at least two games last year, including former blue-chippers Javon Patterson and Rod Taylor.

There are clear question marks here. That converted tight end Jeremy Liggins was listed as starting left tackle in the preseason depth chart, instead of someone more seasoned, was itself alarming, and that was before Liggins got himself suspended in fall camp. Blue-chipper Greg Little supposedly reported to camp a little bit on the overweight side as well.

Between last year's part-time starters, a smattering of upperclassmen, and youngsters like Little and redshirt freshmen Alex Givens and Michael Howard, it's not hard to assume the line will produce a decent starting five. The question is how long it will take. Ole Miss plays two top-five teams in the first three weeks, after all.

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Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.18 26 IsoPPP+ 116.8 20
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 38.2% 34 Succ. Rt. + 112.0 28
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 29.8 70 Off. FP+ 31.8 28
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity 3.9 24 Redzone S&P+ 118.3 15
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 29.6 ACTUAL 23.0 -6.6
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 54 22 28 20
RUSHING 23 17 14 23
PASSING 105 23 46 18
Standard Downs 25 23 26
Passing Downs 20 43 15
Q1 Rk 14 1st Down Rk 14
Q2 Rk 17 2nd Down Rk 20
Q3 Rk 46 3rd Down Rk 6
Q4 Rk 15

6. Opponents took their chances with the pass

Despite the immense success of the last two seasons, Ole Miss' timing was still a bit off. The Rebels ranked first in Def. S&P+ in 2014 but came in just 35th in Off. S&P+. Last fall, the offense surged to 10th, but because of the steady drip of injuries, the defense fell to 22nd. A team with Ole Miss' 2014 defense and 2015 offense would have been the best in the country, but things don't always play out in coordinated fashion.

It seemed the two areas most affected by injury were defensive tackle and the secondary.

That the Rebels still managed to rank fifth in power success rate and 17th in Rushing S&P+ was impressive, considering the tackles who went down, but the secondary suffered.

Ole Miss fell from sixth in Passing S&P+ to 23rd, primarily due to a lack of efficiency. The pass rush disappeared, and the safety position took a huge hit, both planned (2014 star Cody Prewitt was already gone) and unplanned (Tony Conner and C.J. Hampton missed a lot of time).

That gave opponents an out. If they didn't want to run, they didn't have to. Opponents ran 6 percent less frequently than the national average on standard downs and 5 percent less on passing downs. And it worked pretty well. Ole Miss allowed a 62 percent completion rate on first down and 66 percent in the first half. This put the Rebels further onto their heels than they perhaps anticipated.

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 110.8 2.45 3.71 33.0% 49.1% 22.5% 98.1 3.3% 8.6%
Rank 30 12 114 11 5 34 68 108 40
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Marquis Haynes DE 6'3, 222 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8800 13 36.0 4.5% 16.5 10.0 0 2 3 0
D.J. Jones NT 6'0, 321 Sr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9346 13 31.5 3.9% 5.5 4.0 0 0 1 0
Issac Gross (2014) NT 6'1, 263 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8945 12 28.5 3.8% 8.0 1.0 0 0 0 0
Channing Ward DE 13 28.0 3.5% 6.5 3.0 0 3 1 0
Fadol Brown DE 6'4, 273 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.7500 11 23.5 2.9% 4.5 1.0 0 0 0 0
Breeland Speaks DT 6'3, 310 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9194 13 23.0 2.9% 5.5 1.0 0 2 0 0
Woodrow Hamilton NT 13 22.5 2.8% 3.5 1.0 0 0 0 0
Robert Nkemdiche DT 11 21.0 2.6% 7.0 3.0 0 2 0 0
John Youngblood DE 6'3, 255 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7726 13 15.5 1.9% 1.5 0.0 0 1 0 0
Victor Evans DE 6'3, 240 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8479 11 12.0 1.5% 2.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Garrald McDowell DE 6'2, 261 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9196 9 8.0 1.0% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Ross Donelly NT 6'1, 306 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8566 7 5.0 0.6% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Herbert Moore DT 6'1, 326 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8428
Austrian Robinson DT 6'4, 288 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8609
Josiah Coatney DL 6'4, 293 So. 2 stars (5.3) 0.8667
Benito Jones DT 6'2, 308 Fr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9842
Charles Wiley DE 6'2, 253 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9036








Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Rommel Mageo
(Oregon State)
MLB 6'2, 233 Sr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7000 12 67.0 8.9% 2.0 2.0 2 1 2 0
DeMarquis Gates MLB 6'2, 211 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8743 13 61.0 7.6% 2.0 0.0 0 4 2 0
Denzel Nkemdiche OLB 10 44.5 5.5% 6.5 0.5 0 1 0 0
C.J. Johnson MLB 10 34.0 4.2% 3.0 2.0 2 1 1 1
Terry Caldwell OLB 6'1, 216 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8504 13 28.5 3.5% 2.0 1.0 0 0 2 0
Christian Russell MLB 12 27.0 3.4% 4.5 0.0 1 0 1 0
Temario Strong MLB 6'0, 229 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8488 12 10.5 1.3% 1.5 0.0 0 0 1 0
Tayler Polk OLB 5'11, 212 Jr. NR NR 12 10.0 1.2% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Ray Ray Smith OLB 6'2, 216 Jr. NR NR 11 5.5 0.7% 0.0 0.0 0 1 0 0
Luke Davis LB 6'2, 215 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7952 13 4.5 0.6% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Willie Hibbler MLB 6'3, 231 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8855
Detric Bing-Dukes LB 6'1, 247 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8241








7. Still loaded

Ole Miss has to replace three of its top seven tacklers on the line (including Robert Nkemdiche) and three of five at linebacker (including C.J. Johnson and Denzel Nkemdiche). That's quite a bit of star power and depth to replace, but last year's shuffling could pay off. All three of these players missed time, which gave opportunities to players like sophomore tackle Breeland Speaks, junior linebacker DeMarquis Gates, and JUCO transfer Terry Caldwell. And in Issac Gross' absence, D.J. Jones thrived.

Jones, Speaks, and Gross are back, as are Gates, Caldwell, and ends Marquis Haynes and Fadol Brown. Oregon State transfer Rommel Mageo and JUCOs Josiah Coatney and Detric Bing-Dukes (a one-time Georgia signee) join the mix, as do four-star freshmen Benito Jones and Charles Wiley. There are options, and while depth might not be at a level strong enough to withstand a 2015-esque run of injury, this unit still has a really high ceiling. The Land Sharks live.

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Mike Hilton NB 13 59.5 7.4% 12.5 1.5 2 13 1 0
Trae Elston ROV 13 57.0 7.1% 5 0 4 14 0 0
Tony Conner
(2014)
NB 6'0, 225 Sr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9837 13 53.5 7.1% 9 1 1 2 0 0
Ken Webster CB 5'11, 189 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8887 13 35.5 4.4% 3 0 1 11 0 0
Tony Bridges CB 6'0, 185 Sr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9131 13 32.5 4.0% 2 0 3 9 0 0
C.J. Hampton FS 6'0, 186 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9534 9 25.0 3.1% 1 0 0 1 0 0
Zedrick Woods ROV 5'11, 197 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8402 13 20.5 2.5% 1 0 1 0 0 0
Chief Brown FS 13 20.0 2.5% 0.5 0 1 3 0 0
A.J. Moore NB 5'11, 199 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8386 13 19.0 2.4% 1 1 0 0 2 0
Carlos Davis CB 5'8, 170 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) NR 13 18.5 2.3% 1.5 0 0 1 0 0
C.J. Moore ROV 5'11, 193 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8370 13 15.5 1.9% 0.5 0 0 2 0 0
Kailo Moore CB 5'10, 188 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9302 10 7.0 0.9% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Cam Ordway DB 5'11, 184 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8773 7 5.5 0.7% 0.5 0 0 1 0
Armani Linton FS 6'2, 215 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9067
Jalen Julius CB 5'10, 172 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8648
Montrell Custis NB 6'0, 186 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8545
Deontay Anderson DB 6'1, 217 Fr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9732
Jaylon Jones DB 5'11, 177 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9145
Myles Hartsfield ROV 5'11, 199 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8584

8. Play-makers gone, play-makers back

Ole Miss returns every cornerback from last year's secondary; the duo of Ken Webster and Tony Bridges combined for five tackles for loss and 24 passes defensed and provided a pleasant play-making surprise after the loss of the awesome Senquez Golson.

The questions come at safety. Mike Hilton was a virtually perfect nickel back, combining coverage skills (15 passes defensed) with invasive ability (12.5 tackles for loss). Trae Elston, meanwhile, provided almost the same level of havoc. The loss of these two and Chief Brown is a concern, as is the fact that new/old nickel Tony Conner might not be 100 percent yet.

If Conner eventually reaches his 2014 form, and C.J. Hampton stays in Freeze's good graces (he was suspended for nearly half of last season), then maybe the safeties will come close to the standard set in 2014 and parts of 2015. But the recent loss of backup C.J. Moore to injury made the unit even greener beyond the first string and will probably force blue-chip freshman Deontay Anderson to produce early.

There are a lot of "ifs" and "maybes" for the defense, but a better year of injuries luck would help considerably.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Will Gleeson 6'3, 189 Jr. 43 40.7 1 15 9 55.8%
Gary Wunderlich 6'0, 193 Jr. 9 46.9 0 1 4 55.6%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Nathan Noble 6'3, 229 Sr. 94 64.1 54 1 57.4%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2016
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Gary Wunderlich 6'0, 193 Jr. 63-63 16-20 80.0% 3-5 60.0%
Andy Pappanastos

3-3 0-0 N/A 0-0 N/A
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Jaylen Walton KR 27 18.3 0
Carlos Davis KR 5'8, 170 Sr. 3 13.0 0
Collins Moore PR 15 1.4 0
Carlos Davis PR 5'8, 170 Sr. 13 5.5 0
Category Rk
Special Teams S&P+ 72
Field Goal Efficiency 65
Punt Return Success Rate 118
Kick Return Success Rate 123
Punt Success Rate 62
Kickoff Success Rate 3

9. Legs: good. Returns: ehhhhhh

The areas of special teams that involve kicking a ball are fine. Gary Wunderlich is a steady place-kicker, Nathan Noble's kickoffs are usually unreturnable, and while Will Gleeson's punts aren't particularly long, they too are frequently unreturnable. (Coverage units are solid, too.)

The areas of special teams that involve returning someone else's kicks, however, are problematic. Ole Miss got almost nothing out of the return game in 2015, and while Carlos Davis' return gives the unit a little bit of experience, this could be an area in which a freshman or redshirt freshman (corner Jalen Julius, perhaps?) gives the Rebels a quick boost.

2016 Schedule & Projection Factors

2016 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
5-Sep vs. Florida State 5 -0.7 48%
10-Sep Wofford NR 42.0 99%
17-Sep Alabama 1 -4.4 40%
24-Sep Georgia 15 6.3 64%
1-Oct Memphis 77 22.4 90%
15-Oct at Arkansas 17 0.2 50%
22-Oct at LSU 2 -9.0 30%
29-Oct Auburn 24 9.9 72%
5-Nov Georgia Southern 52 18.0 85%
12-Nov at Texas A&M 25 3.0 57%
19-Nov at Vanderbilt 69 13.6 78%
26-Nov Mississippi State 21 8.8 70%
Projected wins: 7.8
Five-Year F/+ Rk 24.3% (22)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 15 / 20
2015 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 0 / 2.3
2015 TO Luck/Game -0.9
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 64% (74%, 54%)
2015 Second-order wins (difference) 10.9 (-0.9)

10. The best 1-2 team in college football

You can make the case that the Ole Miss defense will be at its best early in the season. Most injuries won't have happened yet, and the unit's overall experience will pay early dividends.

You can also make the case that the offense will take a while to come around. Maybe last year's excellent complementary receivers don't automatically take to larger roles (doubtful), or maybe the offensive line needs time to gel (likely).

How quickly the line comes together could define the season. Ole Miss plays three projected top-five teams, and two show up on the first three weeks. The Rebels take on Florida State in Orlando to start the season, then get a visit from Alabama on September 17. A visit from Georgia follows, and the Rebels visit Arkansas and LSU in mid-October.

Yikes. Per S&P+, Ole Miss has at least a 64 percent chance of winning in seven games and has a 50 percent chance of avoiding an 0-2 record against FSU and Bama. But the schedule is far more conducive to a strong finish than a fast start.

Freeze's program has committed some NCAA violations, and those chickens will come home to roost at some point. But he has also put together a deep roster. His 2016 class ranked sixth in the country per the 247Sports Composite, even better than the famed 2013 haul (eighth), and could power the Rebels into a pretty happy future unless NCAA sanctions are worse than anticipated. (The talent will be there, even if the depth is not.)

Ole Miss should once again be the opposite of boring. But volatility is entertaining, right?