This is not a piece about either former Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze’s firing or the Rebels’ longstanding battle with the NCAA. We’ve written those pieces. A lot of them. Steven Godfrey and I have done a podcast about it, too. It’s well-covered territory.
No, this is an acknowledgment that Ole Miss will play a football season. The Rebels will play 12 games — and no more than 12, thanks to self-imposed sanctions — with an interim head coach. At some point this fall, athletic director Ross Bjork will begin his search for a full-time head man, but this is a preview of those 12 games.
Because I’m not a fan, and because my emotional well-being isn’t tied to the results of these 12 games, I can say I’m really excited about finding out what the Rebels are capable of. Because it could be anything. I mentioned my infatuation with Freeze teams at the end of that PAPN episode:
BC: I will forever be mad at Hugh Freeze for blowing this because ... I freaking loved watching Hugh Freeze teams play. Now, part of that was because I had no rooting interest, so the fact that they were crazy and it went off the rails sometimes, but didn't other times, that was fine. I didn't mind.
SG: It was a firework, but it was a firework with, like, really shoddy fuses, so occasionally they would blow up in your hand.
BC: So much speed and kind of a don't-give-a-damn aggression, always, but I loved that they had that aspect to them. It was so much fun, there was such an emphasis on speed that, especially with their defense, it was kind of a vision of where college football was going to adjust to spread offenses. And they ran a spread offense, in the SEC West, and proved it could be done reasonably well. Loved that.
And I love usurpers! We always talk about how this sport hates usurpers, and we immediately try to strike down the ones that don't fit. I loved that there was a team signing a top-10-caliber class, multiple top-10-caliber classes, and winning 10 games, and beating Alabama, that wasn't a blue blood who's been good for most of the last 50 years. I loved that. And he blew all these story lines by, well, by being Hugh Freeze, I guess.
Guess what: Ole Miss will still have all sorts of speed in 2017. The Rebels will still try to force mistakes with aggression, and barring any last-minute transfers (a possibility during this fluid situation), they will still have former star recruits scattered throughout: a five-star sophomore quarterback, a couple of four-star sophomore running backs (plus a four-star senior returning after missing 2016), eight four-star receivers, a four-star tight end, six four-star linemen and two five-stars, six four-star defensive backs. And they’ll still have mostly the same coaching staff
These players will have even less reason to give a damn. And that will probably result in them blowing up in your hand a little more often.
2016 in review
We had a running joke through much of last season: that Ole Miss was the best [random bad record] team in the country. Best 1-2 team, best 3-4 team, best 3-5 team. The Rebels took on a brutal schedule and scared the hell out of a couple of awesome teams — they led FSU 28-6 late in the first half before collapsing in a 45-34 loss, and led Alabama 24-3 late in the first half (thanks in part to a return touchdown) before succumbing 48-43 (thanks in part to return touchdowns) — but couldn’t get over the hump.
Through nine games, the Rebels were 4-5 — 0-4 against teams in the year-end S&P+ top 15 and 4-1 against everyone else. They throttled Georgia by 31 and Memphis by 20, and they were a little unlucky to lose a wild, 34-30 decision at Arkansas. The defense was sliding, but this was still a fun, dangerous team.
Quarterback Chad Kelly suffered a season-ending injury, however, and the reins were passed to freshman Shea Patterson earlier than expected.
Patterson sparked a late comeback win at Texas A&M, but the Rebels collapsed in their final two games, getting outscored 93-37 by Vanderbilt and Mississippi State.
In all, the season took the form of a supernova. The Rebels looked excellent (but not quite excellent enough) early, played reasonably well, then collapsed.
- First 5 games (3-2): Avg. percentile performance: 86% (~top 15) | Avg. yards per play: x | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: plus-2.7 PPG
- Next 4 games (1-3): Avg. percentile performance: 67% (~top 40) | Avg. yards per play: x | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: minus-10.7 PPG
- Last 3 games (1-2): Avg. percentile performance: 31% (~top 90) | Avg. yards per play: x | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: minus-27.7 PPG
Honestly, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a similar trajectory this fall. With so few accomplishments to aim for in 2017, there’s a chance the Rebels are duds from the get-go. But with the talent at hand, they could come firing out of the gates but flag as the season wears on and motivation wavers.
That could be bad news for early opponents (Cal, Alabama, Auburn) and good news for November foes (Kentucky, Texas A&M, Mississippi State).
Even before Freeze was dumped, Ole Miss was facing quite a bit of change. Defensive coordinator Dave Wommack retired, and Freeze strangely dismissed offensive coordinator Dan Werner despite back-to-back Off. S&P+ top-15 performances. The Rebel offense faded as 2016 wore on, but it was still good until the last two games.
The dismissal was odd, but the replacement was exciting. Freeze brought in Phil Longo, head of the best FCS offense in the country, to install his version of an air raid-style attack.
The 2016 Sam Houston State offense was all sorts of fun. They averaged 49.5 points per game (the average was 53.1 before they scored just seven in an FCS playoff loss to James Madison) while throwing 57 percent of the time. Quarterback Jeremiah Briscoe completed 63 percent of his passes with an obscene 57-to-10 TD-to-INT ratio, four players caught at least 40 passes, and the top two running backs still carried enough to gain 1,656 yards at 6.1 per carry.
Better yet, this was a pass-first, pass-second offense that also thrived in the red zone; the Bearkats scored touchdowns on 80 percent of their red zone trips, best in FCS.
Granted, when you lose your starting quarterback, your leading rusher, and three of your top four receiving targets, that’s not the best time to double down on the pass, but with the sophomores Ole Miss has in the chamber, it might work, at least sporadically.
The list of reasons for optimism starts with Patterson. He had his redshirt torn off in the 10th game of the season — hardly optimal — but showed enough flashes to lead us to believe the blue-chip hype was justified.
Patterson plays like he was created in a dual-threat quarterbacks lab. The ball just jumps out of his damn hand, and he proved wonderfully adept at not only scrambling for yardage but avoiding the brunt of huge hits. He slides at the right time, he turns his throwing shoulder away from contact, etc.
He also has a dynamic, young receiving corps. Former star recruits Van Jefferson (49 catches, 51 percent success rate, 7.2 yards per target)) and A.J. Brown (29 catches, 56 percent, 9.6) held their own as freshmen, and DaMarkus Lodge started 2016 beautifully (seven catches for 133 yards in the first four games) before fading.
Throw in four-star redshirt freshmen D.K. Metcalf (who was on his way to making major contributions last year until breaking his foot in the season opener) and Tré Nixon, plus a host of athletic tight ends (sophomore Octavious Cooley, redshirt freshmen Gabe Angel and Jacob Mathis, and maybe converted QB Jason Pellerin), and you’ve potentially got the makings of a corps that is both exciting and deep enough to do what Patterson needs.
That’s an impressive thing to say, considering what the Rebels lost: Evan Engram, Damore’ea Stringfellow, and Quincy Adeboyejo combined for 146 catches, 2,098 yards, and 15 touchdowns last year.
The run game could be more successful. The line was a mess last year, with only one player starting all 12 games and eight starting at least five (I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that before), but seven of the eight are back, and new line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. has plenty of raw talent to work with in players like junior guards Javon Patterson and Jordan Sims, junior center Sean Rawlings, senior tackle Rod Taylor, and sophomore tackle Greg Little.
Jordan Wilkins’ theoretical return will help, too. He has suffered a potentially minor injury in fall camp but is expected to return, after missing 2016 because of a silly academic mishap, and his per-carry averages (5.3 yards per carry, 42 percent opportunity rate) were better than those of last year’s backs. And it’s not too late for four-star sophomores D’Vaughn Pennamon or Eric Swinney to progress.
Wommack’s attacking, fast-as-hell 4-2-5 defense was one of the most unique features of Freeze’s Rebel squads. It worked pretty well, too, at least for a while. Ole Miss ranked 25th in Def. S&P+ in 2012, surged to second in 2014, and held at 23rd in 2015.
After losing half of 2015’s line two-deep (including first-round pick Robert Nkemdiche) and most of the secondary to departure or injury, they couldn’t hold onto the same standard. They slipped to 74th, and Wommack’s tenure ended with the Rebels giving up 1,047 yards and 93 points in his final two games.
New coordinator Wesley McGriff, who spent 2012 as the co-coordinator of the 2012 Ole Miss defense before leaving for the New Orleans Saints and then Auburn, returns to succeed Wommack. And he is evidently bringing more of a 4-3 structure with him.
This is at least a little bit dicey. First, the Rebels’ built their identity around speed, and trading a fifth defensive back for a third linebacker will curtail that at least a bit. Second, well, there are a lot more experienced defensive backs returning than linebackers.
It’s a matter of framing, I guess. The Rebels return three of last year’s top four LBs, including a nice blitzer in senior DeMarquis Gates. But they also return three of last year’s top seven. Depth has been erased, which means any injury will lead to a sophomore or newcomer being tested.
It’s the same story on the line: the top end (Marquis Haynes) and tackle (Benito Jones) return, but four of the next five tacklers are gone. Thanks in part to injuries, nine different linemen logged at least 10 tackles, and five of them are back, but depth is dicey here, too, and because you can’t predict injuries (or suspensions or transfers), you can’t anticipate how much this will backfire.
Through all the turnover, the so-called Land Sharks lost their identity. They didn’t have the pieces to attack, and they fell from 34th to 62nd in success rate allowed. Meanwhile, the big plays got out of control. The Rebels allowed 34 gains of 30-plus yards, 98th in FBS and 11 more than they allowed (in one more game) in 2015. Bad combination.
An injury to Ken Webster didn’t help. Webster had three tackles for loss and 11 passes defensed in 2015 and was expected to carry the mantel in the secondary after the loss of stars Mike Hilton and Trae Elston (combined: 17.5 TFLs, 33 PDs in 2015). But he was lost for the season in the opener against FSU. That, plus an injury to C.J. Moore, meant a ton of playing time for freshmen and sophomores.
Webster is back, at least after serving a one-game suspension. Depending on how much speed he has left after last year’s injury, he could either help to shore up a cornerback rotation heavy on sophomores (Myles Hartsfield, Jaylon Jones, Jalen Julius) and maybe at least one freshman (four-star D.D. Bowie) or bring heft and play-making to the safety position.
At safety, Zedrick Woods and Deontay Anderson are certainly more experienced than they were a year ago, senior A.J. Moore is back, C.J. Moore is as well, and four-star freshman Breon Dixon could be fun to watch.
The front seven has talent but minimal depth; the secondary has depth but few proven pieces. McGriff’s first year back could go in a lot of different directions.
Special teams should again be a strength. The Rebels ranked 21st in Special Teams S&P+ thanks mostly to excellent place-kicking and kick coverage and solid punting. Place-kicker Gary Wunderlich (22-for-23 on FGs) and punter Will Gleeson (44.1 yard average) are both back. That’s good.
The primary turnover is in the return game, thanks to the loss of Carlos Davis. But returns weren’t all that good.
2017 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|23-Nov||at Mississippi State||30||-0.3||49%|
|Projected S&P+ Rk||26|
|Proj. Off. / Def. Rk||16 / 49|
|Five-Year S&P+ Rk||14.0 (12)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||20 / 18|
|2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||-3 / -3.3|
|2016 TO Luck/Game||+0.1|
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)||50% (37%, 63%)|
|2016 Second-order wins (difference)||6.0 (-1.0)|
On paper, without context — in the S&P+ universe, in other words — we would expect pretty good things of Ole Miss this season. S&P+ projects the Rebels 26th with a potent (but slightly worse) offense and the defense making a few gains.
The schedule for that context-free team is manageable, with a decent chance at a 3-0 start, a couple of likely wins in the middle, and three relative tossup games that could produce a winning record.
But when you are banned from the postseason, and when your coach was pushed out weeks before the season begins, and when you have nothing to play for except a “spectacular spoiler” label, maintaining motivation long enough to play like you’re supposed to for 12 games seems challenging.
The question, then, is how long will Ole Miss keep it together? Will they suffer a Week 1 upset to South Alabama and slump to 3-9? Will they play great in the opening weeks before a three-game road trip (Cal, Alabama, Auburn) does them in at the start of October? Will they maintain long enough to pull an upset of Auburn or LSU before hitting a wall in November (and losing all of those late tossups)? Will they slump at all?
We just don’t know. And I enjoy not knowing.