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Just How Good is the Ole Miss Rebel Defense?

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SPOILER ALERT: Pretty damn good.

Robert Nkemdiche tackling Derrick Henry
Robert Nkemdiche tackling Derrick Henry
Joe Murphy

After the No. 3 Ole Miss Rebel defense held the heralded Alabama Crimson Tide offense to a mere 10 points in a 23-17 win last weekend, a lot was made of how talented Ole Miss is on that side of the ball. Everyone who follows college football has heard of Robert Nkemdiche from his days as a top-flight recruit, and safety Cody Prewitt was on nearly everyone's all-American list this offseason, but this season we're hearing national pundits and casual fans alike tossing around names like C.J. Johnson, Senquez Golson, and Deterrian Shackelford in support of the idea that this Ole Miss defense is one of the most complete units in the Southeastern Conference.

The numbers do support that idea, as the Rebels are in the top-10 nationally in several defensive statistical categories. Consider that the Landshark defense is:

  • First in the nation in actual scoring defense (8.4 points per game)
  • Third in interceptions (10)
  • Fourth in opposing plays of 10+ yards (45)
  • Fifth in total defense (277.6 yards per game)
  • and ninth in pass defense (152.4 yards per game).

Of those categories, Ole Miss is the top team in the SEC save for total defense, where they're just behind the Alabama Crimson Tide. On top of those categories, this team finds itself in the top 25 nationally in way more defensive categories than I have time to list. It's pretty clear and convincing that this defense is playing at an elite level.

But we can did deeper - or, rather, we can piggy back off of someone else digging deeper - to see just how good this defense is given the competition played. According to Footballoutsiders.com, a source of Sabermetrics type of analysis for football, the Rebels are the second best overall defense in the country after Stanford. The same numbers reveal Ole Miss to be tops in the coutry in IsoPPP, a measure of "explosiveness" (think interceptions that rob touchdowns and whatnot) and fifth in defensive S&P, a measure of how "effective" a team is. Breaking down the S&P numbers reveal that Ole Miss has the third highest S&P against the pass, and second highest when teams are in obvious passing situations.

An explanation of those numbers are all on FootballOutsiders.com**, but if you'd rather me boil it down and tell you what you want to hear, then here goes: The Ole Miss defense is really, really, really effective, even when you make adjustments to remove garbage time and account for strength of schedule. They're pretty good at everything, but are on an elite level when it comes to defending the pass. This makes sense with a defensive line that can pressure quarterbacks into bad throws and a secondary that can keep up with skilled receivers and pick off errant passes.

Considering this team's success thus far, it's not crazy to argue that Ole Miss has the best defense in the college football playing nation, let alone the defense-heavy Southeastern conference. With a defense this good, Rebel fans should be pretty confident heading into literally every game remaining on their schedule, even against offenses like Texas A&M and Auburn.

Ole Miss has had some pretty good defenses in the past. The 1959 team that gave up just three touchdowns all year, the 2008 team that led the nation in tackles for a loss, and the stingy defenses of the Billy Brewer/Joe Lee Dunn days all come to mind when thinking of the Rebs history on that side of the ball. But this year's group of Landsharks, if they continue playing at the level they have been, could go down as the best defense in Ole Miss football history.

*I use the term "actual" scoring defense because the statistic, for some reason, includes points scored off of safeties and defensive touchdowns. I've removed those.

**Oh, and if you'll look at their overall college football ratings, you'll see that Ole Miss is the top team in the country, followed by Mississippi State. I'm not sure this is real life.