I'll admit, there was a time a few short weeks ago when I casually dismissed the notion that Memphis had a legitimate shot at upsetting Ole Miss. Sure, Paxton Lynch was piling up yards and points, but that was against over-matched AAC defenses, not a Rebel unit studded with NFL talent. And even if Justin Fuente's offense did have some success against Ole Miss, there was no way they'd be able to keep pace with Chad Kelly firing off one big play after another against a Memphis secondary that's been downright awful this season.
But that was before All-American Tony Conner went down with a torn meniscus, before uber-talented corner Tee Shepard quit the team, before a depleted Rebel defense got picked apart by (an admittedly enhanced) Will Grier and, worst of all, allowed a Vandy quarterback to look competent.
The stats still suggest that the Rebs' offense should be able to outpace the Tigers, but it could take a lot of scoring to do so.
So brush off those terrible Chad Kelly AK-47 jokes, this one could end up being a shootout.
Can the Rebs' thinning secondary slow down Paxton Lynch?
Lynch has faced Ole Miss before and it ... how can I put this politely ... was a fucking train wreck. During the Rebs' 24-3 pull-away win in Oxford last season, Lynch completed just 13 of his 31 pass attempts for an embarrassing 81 yards, no scores and one pick.
But both of these teams have changed a lot since then.
Ole Miss' secondary has had more trouble replacing Senquez Golson and Cody Prewitt than expected. The numbers are still very good overall -- lead the SEC in picks, second in points per attempt, second in passes of 20-plus yards -- but against Bama and Florida, the only two competent passing attacks they've faced, the Rebs allowed a combined 64-percent completion rate, 559 yards and seven touchdowns through the air.
|Memphis offense||Ole Miss defense|
|Passing S&P+||117.6 (ntl. rank: 31st)||107.8 (45th)|
|Passing success rate||52.7% (4th)||38.1% (53rd)|
|Passing IsoPPP||1.74 (13th)||1.13 (5th)|
|Adj. sack rate||102.6 (60th)||82.6 (96th)|
Advanced stats via our buddies at Football Study Hall
Memphis, meanwhile, comes into Saturday with the country's fourth-best scoring offense and the 13th most passing yards per game. And they're picking up those yards in chunks: the Tigers rank 13th in passing IsoPPP (a stat Football Outsiders uses to measure explosiveness) and 17th in passing plays of 20 yards or more.
But Lynch, who's second in the country with 10.5 yards per attempt, is staying highly efficient despite all of those downfield throws: he's completed 70.5 percent of his passes (fifth best in the country) and totes a passer rating of 181.47 (third best). He's also protecting the ball, as his 10:0 touchdown-to-interception rate can attest.
And while Lynch doesn't have a star, go-to target, the fact that he can spread it around among a deep receiving corps makes this offense even more dangerous: through five games, seven different guys have double digit targets and eight have touchdown receptions.
Swag Kelly could make it rain at the Liberty Bowl.
While the Rebs' secondary has had some trouble, they're still way better against the pass than Memphis' defense, which is struggling to replace its coordinator and eight(!) starters from last season. The 306.8 passing yards the Tigers are allowing per game is eighth worst in the country. In their shootout win against Cincinnati three weeks ago, they let a backup quarterback throw for four touchdowns and over 500 yards in the span of three quarters.
|Ole Miss offense||Memphis defense|
|Passing S&P+||156.1 (ntl. rank: 1st)||87.0 (102nd)|
|Passing success rate||52.2% (5th)||43.9% (95th)|
|Passing IsoPPP||1.71 (15th)||1.62 (103rd)|
|Adj. sack rate||106.56 (57th)||67.2 (108th)|
But the biggest difference between these two defenses is their relative abilities to stop the big play. Thanks in large part to safety Trae Elston's superb play on the back end, Ole Miss has allowed just eight passing plays of 20 or more yards, good for fourth best in the country. Memphis, which is missing the top four tacklers from its secondary a season ago, has given up 20 pass plays of 20+ (90th in the country) and seven of 40+ (111th).
Which means Chad Kelly, who is fifth in the country with 32 completions of 20 or more yards, could be in for a monster game. Swag is just two spots behind Lynch in the national yards per attempt rankings and, just five games into his career, is on the verge of setting a school record for most 300-yard games in a season (he's currently tied with Bo and Eli at four). With his rocket of an arm and stable of vertical receivers, he might be the most dangerous big-play quarterback in the country.
It's the depth at receiver that makes preventing big plays against the Rebs so damn difficult. On most offenses, there are one or two deep-threat guys that you can focus on -- with Ole Miss, there are just too many to stop.
Check out the big-play distribution:
|Player||Receptions of 20+ yards|
Here's the moral of the story, kids: there are probably going to be plenty of points scored on both sides on Saturday, but the stats suggest that there will be more on the Ole Miss side of the scoreboard.