The Ole Miss defense, the secondary in particular, is arguably the best unit in the country. Anchored by a pair of All-Americans in Senquez Golson and Cody Prewitt, they're giving up just 188 passing yards per game and have hauled in the sixth-most interceptions in the country.
But they haven't faced an air raid quite like that of TCU and Trevone Boykin, who they'll meet on Wednesday in the Peach Bowl. The Horned Frogs' 333 passing yards per game ranks seventh in the country and Boykin, who's thrown for 30 touchdowns and over 3,700 yards, finished fourth in the Heisman voting.
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The Rebels have faced just one other top-20 passing attack this season, No. 12 Texas A&M.
So how does the Ole Miss defense go about slowing down the Frogs' prolific spread attack? Let's start by taking a look at what's worked with other teams this season, then compare it to what the Rebs have done against similar offenses.
Baylor and West Virginia's aggressive defense worked ... kind of
In TCU's only loss this season, Baylor employed an aggressive and somewhat risky strategy to hamper Boykin. Whenever the Frogs lined up in a four- or five-wide set (which was just about every snap), Baylor played tight, single-man coverage with no safety help, then loaded the line of scrimmage and blitzed the hell out of 'em. The idea is to bring more defenders than the offense can block, force the quarterback into a rushed throw and pray you don't get burned deep.
On this third-and-four, Baylor brings seven rushers against TCU's six blockers. Three of TCU's four wideouts run deep routes, meaning Boykin's only real shot at getting the ball out in time is to his slot man (No. 14) running a hitch. Baylor's extra blitzer comes free and a hurried Boykin makes an errant throw.
As good as Boykin has been this season, there have been a few times when he's struggled with his accuracy -- most of which have been when he's facing heavy pressure and tight coverage. West Virginia mixed in more Cover 1 and Cover 2 looks when they hosted TCU in Morgantown, but on passing downs, they often employed the same aggressive strategy as Baylor.
Here, Boykin doesn't even have time to get a throw off. Multiple blitzers come free and because of the tight coverage, there's no choice but to tuck and scramble.
Facing man coverage and overloaded blitz packages, Boykin completed just 43 percent of his passes in the two games against Baylor and West Virginia.
(In fairness, his 12-of-30 outing in Morgantown was played in cold, rainy conditions.)
The obvious problem with that strategy is that by leaving your defensive backs in single coverage with no safety help, you risk giving up the big play. If the rush is late getting home or if a corner gets beat off the line, you're toast.
Baylor brings six on this play but leaves Boykin enough time to get off the deep bomb.
So while Baylor forced seven punts and five three-and-outs, they also let TCU rack up 44 offensive points and 346 passing yards. Boom or bust.
Ole Miss will be aggressive ... but not that aggressive
Baylor can take gambles on defense because they know their No. 1-ranked scoring offense can pull them out of just about any hole (they overcame a 21-point fourth-quarter deficit to beat TCU). But the Rebel offense isn't that kind of point machine, so they can't afford to sell out on defense the way Baylor did. Don't expect many Cover 0 blitzes.
But that's not to say defensive coordinator Dave Wommack can't utilize the core principles of blitzing the quarterback and playing tight man coverage behind it. Against Mississippi State -- whose tendency to run four- and five-wide sets with a mobile quarterback makes them a relatively good comparison to TCU's offense -- Ole Miss did a ton of that.
On this first-and-10, the Rebs play single man across the formation, with middle linebacker D.T. Shackelford dropping back into a shallow zone. Linebacker Keith Lewis (No. 24) blitzes off the right side and with the pocket collapsing around him, Dak Prescott has to make a hurried throw to a receiver that's fallen down on the sideline.
The thing is, the Rebels don't need to bring the house to get after the quarterback. Because of Robert Nkemdiche, Marquis Haynes and the rest of the deep and ultra-athletic D-line, Ole Miss can get pressure rushing just four -- which frees up a safety or two to play back.
Check out this third-and-9. Once again, Lewis blitzes ... but this time defensive end C.J. Johnson (No. 10) drops back in coverage. Even with a four-man rush, Haynes (No. 27) beats his man around the edge and forces Prescott to pull it down and run.
Ole Miss is still playing tight, single-man coverage, but because they're only rushing four, they can leave a safety playing center field to help prevent the big play (you can see Trae Elston coming into the top right of the screen just before the snap).
So what should we expect?
The Rebs will probably mix in a fair amount of zone and won't be blitzing every play. Keep in mind that they also have a dangerous run game to defend, and turning your back in man coverage on a mobile quarterback can be a dangerous gambit.
But in passing situations, especially on third downs, don't be shocked if Wommack takes some chances and brings multiple blitzers. Ole Miss should make Boykin prove he can pass into tight windows under heavy pressure. Whether he can or not will likely go a long way in deciding the game.