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SEC Season Preview: Ole Miss

By Matt Smith
SouthernPigskin.com
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Previewing the Ole Miss Rebels, ahead of the 2018 season.

Head Coach: Matt Luke – second year at Ole Miss and overall (6-6 overall, 3-5 SEC)

Offensive Coordinator: Phil Longo (second season)

Defensive Coordinator: Wesley McGriff (second season)

2017 Record: 6-6 (3-5 SEC); ineligible for bowl

Returning Starters: 15 (8 offense, 7 defense)

 

2018 Schedule

Sept. 1 – vs. Texas Tech (Noon ET, ESPN)

Sept. 8 – SOUTHERN ILLINOIS (4 p.m. ET, SEC Network Alt.)

Sept. 15 – ALABAMA (7 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Sept. 22 – KENT STATE

Sept. 29 – at LSU

 

Oct. 6 – LOUISIANA-MONROE

Oct. 13 – at Arkansas (Little Rock)

Oct. 20 – AUBURN

 

Nov. 3 – SOUTH CAROLINA

Nov. 10 – at Texas A&M

Nov. 17 – at Vanderbilt

Nov. 22 – MISSISSIPPI STATE (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

 

What We Know

-The receiving corps is the best in the country. A.J. Brown may be the first wide receiver off the board in next year’s NFL Draft, and D.K. Metcalf could be a second-day selection. Senior DaMarkus Lodge is a reliable veteran who had 700 yards and seven touchdowns last season, and Dawson Knox emerged last year a sophomore despite having to replace the best tight end in program history in Evan Engram. The Rebels will be a dangerous out or the SEC’s top teams this year thanks to the passing game, especially with division heavyweights Alabama and Auburn dealing with a slew of inexperience in their secondaries. Quarterback Jordan Ta’amu has a legitimate chance to reach 4,000 yards.

-The offensive line has turned the corner. It was mostly a weakness in the Hugh Freeze era, but a couple of big recruiting wins with Greg Little and Javon Patterson and the development of seniors Sean Rawlings and Jordan Sims has made this unit an asset in Matt Luke’s second season. The sacks were still a little high last season (32), but that is inevitable with a bad defense and being forced to pass early and often in games. Position coach Jack Bicknell Jr. was hired a month before the season last year when Luke was promoted, so having some familiarity this season should help.

-The secondary should be the strength of the defense. There were too many big plays last season (34 of 30 yards or longer), but that was actually an improvement over 2016. Expect a continued upward trend from the defensive backfield with four upperclassmen returning starters. Zedrick Woods has been an incredible surprise at safety, and cornerback Ken Webster is now two years removed from a gruesome knee injury in 2016.

 

What We Don’t Know

-Does Ole Miss have anything at running back? The Rebels are relying heavily on junior college transfer Scottie Phillips, with Eric Swinney the only returning back with more than 100 years last season (D’Vaughn Pennamon is likely to miss the season with a leg injury suffered last November). The running game doesn’t have to carry the offense, but it needs to be an adequate complement for this passing game to reach the level it is capable of reaching.

-Will a pass rusher emerge? Breeland Speaks and Marquis Haynes accounted for exactly half of Ole Miss’ 29 sacks last season, but neither remains in Oxford. Benito Jones and Josiah Coatney can get to the quarterback from his tackle position, but the greatest burden falls on edge players Victor Evans and Qaadir Sheppard. Defensive end was another position at which Ole Miss lost too many recruiting battles late in the Freeze era, and the Rebels are paying for it now with a lack of both top-end talent and depth.

-Part of the reason why defensive end play is so important this season is that the linebacker position is the barest on the roster. There was at least one standout last year in DeMarquis Gates, even with no help around him, but now Gates is gone as well. Detric Bing-Dukes started five games last season, but he’s the only Rebels linebacker with any notable experience. JUCO transfer Vernon Dasher is a potential band-aid at the hybrid STAR position, but immediate-impact junior college transfers aren’t the norm. There are a few interesting freshmen, but they likely won’t be seen much until 2019.

 

Ranking The Units

1.   Wide Receivers

2.   Offensive Line

3.   Quarterbacks

4.   Defensive Backs

5.   Defensive Line

6.   Running Backs

7.   Linebackers

 

Quick Hitters

Swing Game: Oct. 13 at Arkansas

Trap Game: Nov. 17 at Vanderbilt

Offensive MVP: WR A.J. Brown

Defensive MVP: DT Benito Jones

Floor: 4-8

Ceiling: 8-4

 

Season Prediction

Ole Miss probably won’t win many more games than last season, but the Rebels might be the most entertaining team in the country. Points will be aplenty on both sides of the football, and the opener with Texas Tech could (should?) top 80 combined points. Most of the winnable games are on the road this season, with top SEC West contenders Alabama, Auburn, and Mississippi State all coming to Oxford. The Rebels will probably need to sweep road games at Arkansas and Vanderbilt to have hopes of a winning record.

Overall Record: 6-6

SEC Record: 2-6

Final CFP Ranking: NR

Bowl: None (ineligible)

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.