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Ole Miss should once again be one of football’s funnest teams

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“Fun” and “good” aren’t necessarily synonymous, but minus depth concerns, Matt Luke’s Rebels could be both.

NCAA Football: UL Lafayette at Mississippi
Jordan Ta’amu
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

I have a friend who does a lot of highway driving and always does at least 10 over the speed limit. One time I commented on it, saying my comfort zone was more around seven over. His response amazed me; he basically said going that fast gets him an average number of X tickets per year, and he thought of it like an equation:

(X tickets * Y dollars per ticket) / 12 months = he paid $Z per month to drive fast.

There were car insurance effects in there, too, but he determined that figure was worth it to drive fast, so he drove fast. (Why yes, he does play a decent amount of poker. Why do you ask?)

I figure some Ole Miss fans might feel the same way about the past few years.

And as painstakingly detailed by my Podcast Ain’t Played Nobody spouse Steven Godfrey recently, Ole Miss drove fast under Hugh Freeze.

Freeze outright dared highway patrolmen to pull him over. And eventually it cost everyone. NCAA investigators literally lived in Oxford, and the program was handed a two-year bowl ban through 2018 (which allowed for a number of players to transfer without sitting out a year), a loss of some scholarships, show-cause penalties for a number of coaches, and six-digit financial penalties. Freeze was fired after five seasons, though for reasons indirectly tied to the NCAA.

For many Rebel fans, I wonder if this was like paying a fee for everything that happened on the field. Under Freeze, Ole Miss played a fascinating brand of DGAF football. The free-wheeling offense only ran when it had to and operated at one of the higher tempos in the SEC. And the defense was maybe the most viscerally enjoyable in college football; the 2014 Land Sharks took a wheat thresher to most offensive lines, swarmed to the ball, and hit really hard.

In 2014-15, Ole Miss beat Alabama twice, peaked at third in the AP poll both years, and obliterated Oklahoma State in the Sugar Bowl to finish in the top 10 for the first time since 1969. ESPN GameDay’s 2014 visit to Oxford was one of the strangest and most enjoyable episodes ever. They won 19 games and two Egg Bowls. Maybe that was worth the pain that followed?

Either way, the Freeze era has ended, and the Luke era is underway.

NCAA Football: SEC Football Media Day
Matt Luke
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

A 41-year-old from Gulfport who walked on at Ole Miss during another period of NCAA sanctions in the 1990s, Luke was seemingly one of the few Freeze assistants to emerge untainted. He took over as interim in the summer of 2017 and managed to keep a thin, volatile team focused despite offseason drama and the bowl ban.

After a 2-0 start, the Rebels lost five of six games and lost quarterback Shea Patterson to injury in the first half of a 40-24 loss to LSU. But after collapsing in a loss to Arkansas the next week, they rallied to win three of their last four, including trips to Kentucky and Mississippi State.

Considering what amounts to the NCAA stripping ambition for the next couple of years, Ole Miss elected to keep Luke aboard after missing out on candidates like Dave Doeren. Players like Patterson (Michigan) and receiver Van Jefferson (Florida) elected to transfer, but most of the two-deep remained, and Luke signed a top-30 class in the winter.

All things considered, this could be going a lot worse. Coordinator Phil Longo’s offense has continued a lot of Freeze’s enjoyably fearless tendencies, and despite the Patterson injury, the Rebels finished nearly as high in Off. S&P+ last year (ninth) as they had at any point during the Freeze era (they peaked at eighth in 2015). And while the defense continued a precipitous three-year collapse, there were still elements of Land Sharkness, primarily from a havoc-heavy line that returns three of its five major disruptors.

As scholarship limitations take effect, we could see the Rebels succumb to depth issues. Depending on where injuries take hold, this could result in a collapse. But you never know if that will happen, and on paper, this team could match or surpass last year’s output. The Rebels are projected 25th in S&P+ and a projected favorite in seven games.

Offense

2017 Ole Miss offensive radar

Things could have gone really south after Patterson’s injury. He was supposedly the glue holding everything together, but when he went down, it gave Jordan Ta’amu a chance.

Granted, most of the best defenses were off the schedule by that time, but even adjusting for opponent, his time was productive.

  • Ole Miss offense, first 7 games: 30.7 points per game, 6.6 yards per play, 56% average percentile performance (opponent-adjusted)
  • Ole Miss offense, last 5 games: 35.8 points per game, 7.3 yards per play, 76% average percentile performance (opponent-adjusted)

The Patterson offense was volatile and reliant on big plays; the Ta’amu offense was too, but with a layer of efficiency.

It didn’t hurt that he had maybe the most complete receiver in the country.

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Mississippi State
A.J. Brown
Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Here’s a complete list of FBS players with at least 90 targets, a 75 percent catch rate, and 15 yards per catch in 2017:

  • Ole Miss’ A.J. Brown (94 targets, 80 percent catch rate, 16.7 yards per catch)
  • Texas Tech’s Keke Coutee (121 targets, 77 percent, 15.4)

That’s it. A product of Starkville, Brown raised his catch rate from 75 to 86 percent and lowered his per-catch average with Ta’amu throwing him passes. He was also maybe the most impactful receiver in FBS. In six wins, he had 51 catches for 980 yards and 10 touchdowns; in six losses: 24 catches, 272 yards, one score. If you couldn’t stop Brown, you couldn’t beat Ole Miss.

In times when an opponent does slow him down, however, it’s up to other former blue-chippers, 6’2 senior DaMarkus Lodge and 6’4 sophomore D.K. Metcalf, to pick up the slack. Both were more all-or-nothing, with per-catch averages over 16 yards but catch rates at 55 percent or lower. This isn’t bad; it’s just not super-human like Brown.

After this trio, things thin out. (This will be a common theme in this preview.) The fourth leading returner is sophomore slot Braylon Sanders, who caught four passes last year. Four-star freshmen Elijah Moore and Miles Battle might be asked to produce whether ready or not.

Similarly, if Ta’amu gets hurt like Patterson did, the only scholarship option is a true freshman. It’s a potentially awesome freshman, blue-chipper Matt Corral, but a freshman all the same.

NCAA Football: UL Lafayette at Mississippi
DaMarkus Lodge
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Longo went all-in on the passing game last year — 128th in standard-downs run rate (45 percent, 15 percentage points below the national average) and 114th in passing-downs run rate (26 percent, nine percentage points below) — and that probably won’t change, especially with the loss of Jordan Wilkins, who both rushed for 1,011 yards and caught 26 of 30 passes for 241 last year.

Juniors D’Vaughn Pennamon and Eric Swinney got plenty of action, too — 94 combined carries, 20 pass targets — but didn’t produce at nearly the same rate. Swinney mostly matched Wilkins’ efficiency numbers but lagged far behind in explosiveness, and Pennamon lagged in both.

Both are former four-stars, and they’ll be behind a line that doesn’t seem to lack in depth: five returning juniors and seniors — including all-SEC tackle Greg Little — have combined for 104 career starts, and there are four- and high-three-star youngsters in the chamber.

This offense will go as far as Ta’amu and the passing game will take it, and that might be awfully far.

Defense

2017 Ole Miss defensive radar

You have to give the Rebels this: despite losing star defenders over the previous couple years, and despite getting wrecked by injury, the 2017 line could still get after the quarterback. Coordinator Wesley McGriff got only four sacks all year from non-linemen, but the Land Sharks ranked ninth in Adj. Sack Rate and third in passing-downs sack rate anyway. If they could force you to pass, they could get you into trouble.

Unfortunately, a) they often couldn’t force you to pass (83rd in standard-downs success rate), and b) most of that pass rush came from Breeland Speaks (drafted by the Chiefs) and Marquis Haynes (Panthers), who combined for 14.5 sacks. Linebacker DeMarquis Gates, Ole Miss’ leader in non-sack tackles for loss and run stuffs, is gone, too.

But hey, on the bright side, the defense almost literally can’t get worse without them. They ranked 113th in Def. S&P+ — quite the tumble from second in 2014.

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Texas A&M
Benito Jones
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The problems began up front. Speaks and Haynes combined for just 4.5 non-sack TFLs, which hints at one-dimensionality, and Ole Miss ranked just 88th in rushing success rate, 118th in opportunity rate (percentage of carries gaining at least five yards), and 104th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line).

This could improve with experience and health luck. Starting tackles Josiah Coatney and Benito Jones were sophomores, and four regulars — tackle Ross Donelly and ends Austrian Robinson, Victor Evans, and Qaadir Sheppard — combined to miss 21 games.

Evans recorded five TFLs in five games, and 1.5 of sophomore end Ryder Anderson’s six career tackles were behind the line as well. It’s hard to worry much about the ends, but if JUCO transfers Noah Jefferson and/or Hal Northern aren’t early contributors, there’s reason to worry about tackle. And the linebacking corps basically features one senior (Detric Bing-Dukes) and a bunch of young unknowns.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Mississippi
Javien Hamilton
Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Despite a good pass rush and decent experience, the pass defense was lacking, too. Ole Miss ranked 82nd in passing success rate and allowed a passer rating of 142 or greater in five games, four of which were losses.

Most of last year’s secondary returns, at least, so experience will be a strength, especially at cornerback, where last year’s top four return. Juniors Myles Hartfield and Jaylon Jones combined for 66 tackles and eight passes defensed, senior Javien Hamilton led the team with eight passes defensed, and 2015 star Ken Webster (three TFLs, 12 PDs that year) is another year removed from a nasty 2016 knee injury.

Safety could be fine as long as neither Zedrick Woods nor C.J. Moore get hurt. They combined for 92 tackles last year, and the No. 3 returning safety, junior Montrell Custis, had just 9.5. Sophomore C.J. Miller played a role early in the year, and Luke signed JUCO transfer Vernon Dasher, too. But the depth is very much untested.

Special Teams

Ole Miss ranked 17th in Special Teams S&P+ but will undergo a youth movement after the loss of a solid place-kicker (Gary Wunderlich) and efficient punter (Will Gleeson). Sophomore Luke Logan’s got a big leg, and kick returner Jaylon Jones is awesome, but another top-20 finish might be difficult.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep Texas Tech 47 9.3 70%
8-Sep Southern Illinois NR 33.0 97%
15-Sep Alabama 2 -13.6 22%
22-Sep Kent State 127 28.7 95%
29-Sep at LSU 16 -5.6 37%
6-Oct UL-Monroe 107 22.5 90%
13-Oct at Arkansas 52 4.7 61%
20-Oct Auburn 5 -9.0 30%
3-Nov South Carolina 35 6.2 64%
10-Nov at Texas A&M 24 -2.6 44%
17-Nov at Vanderbilt 75 9.4 71%
22-Nov Mississippi State 14 -2.3 45%
Projected S&P+ Rk 25
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 4 / 97
Projected wins 7.3
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 12.4 (14)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 30 / 20
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -5 / -4.7
2017 TO Luck/Game -0.1
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 63% (64%, 62%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 7.8 (-1.8)

Depth, depth, depth. If the injury bug leaves Ole Miss mostly unbitten at QB, WR, defensive tackle, and safety, the Rebels have the experience and star power to do damage. This team is obviously far more settled on offense than defense, but this could be one dynamite offense, and the defense at least probably won’t get worse.

S&P+ likes what it sees, at least, though it likes almost everyone in the SEC West — the Rebels are projected 25th overall, but that’s sixth-best in their division.

Still, there are plenty of potential wins. The Rebels are given at least a 70 percent win probability in five games, and five others are projected within a touchdown one way or the other. Win the games you’re supposed to win, split the close ones, and that’s a hell of a year, everything considered.

Still, it’s not hard to see how this goes off the rails. A run of injuries could be devastating, and while Luke kept his team focused in 2017, he could run into issues if the Rebels lose to Texas Tech in the season opener, then get blown out again by Alabama two weeks later.

The path is tenuous, but the upside is still awfully high.

Team preview stats

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