In the early afternoon of October 17th, the 2015 Ole Miss football season appeared to be on the brink of disaster. It had just suffered its second embarrassing loss in a three-week span. Star left tackle Laremy Tunsil was finally set to return from his NCAA suspension, but after seven games and two losses, it appeared to be too late to have any meaningful impact. Preseason All-American Tony Conner, senior linebacker C.J. Johnson and starting center Robert Conyers where all out with knee injuries, and top-five NFL Draft prospect Robert Nkemdiche had just suffered a concussion. Seemingly everything that could have gone wrong for the Rebels had gone wrong.
In the midst of all this turmoil, Hugh Freeze and his team somehow kept their focus. They beat four SEC West opponents down the stretch to finish 9-3 and receive an invitation to the Sugar Bowl.
For those fans that haven't followed the Rebels that closely this season, let's take a look at how they got here, what this team does well and what injuries it's dealing with heading into a New Year's Day tilt against Oklahoma State.
What Ole Miss does on offense
When Hugh Freeze was first introduced as the head coach at Ole Miss he promised to turn his offense into a "fundamentally efficient scoring machine" and in year four, he has delivered on that promise. The spread-option offensive attack, led by quarterback Chad Kelly, is ranked near the top of the country in most every meaningful category.
The beauty of Ole Miss' style of offense is the multiple options that can exist on any given play. Here's an example from the Alabama game earlier this year:
Chad Kelly has three options on this play, all of which are dependent on the look he gets from the defense. The first option is a handoff to running back Jaylen Walton, but Kelly keeps it when he reads the defensive end (No. 30) crashing down. He then moves to his second read: the boundary corner who's stuck between covering his receiver or closing in on the quarterback. In this case, the corner chooses to abandon the receiver and Kelly tosses an easy touchdown pass to a wide open Cody Core.
This type of offensive play calling only works when the defense is forced to respect each factor in the equation equally (look to Auburn this season for an example how this offense breaks down without an effective passing attack to keep the defense honest), and the Rebels have been able to do just that. The running game has improved mightily down the stretch and all three of Ole Miss' regular running backs at least average 4.9 yards per carry.
Part of that improvement on the ground is thanks to star left tackle Laremy Tunsil's return from a seven-game suspension. However, part of it is also because Ole Miss is taking advantage of Chad Kelly's effectiveness in the run game.
Here's Kelly keeping it for himself this time on a somewhat different look, but similar concept, against Arkansas:
When this is clicking for the Rebels, opposing defenses have to account for at least two ball carriers on every running play. When teams have to play downfield and respect the ground game, Ole Miss can take advantage of it's best unit, the wide receivers.
The Rebels have big and physical receivers (none of the guys in the regular rotation are shorter than 6'2) that create mismatches all over the field. Laquon Treadwell, a Biletnikoff Award finalist and surefire NFL first rounder, is only the second receiver in school history to have 1,000 yards receiving in a single season. But it's not just the Treadwell show: Ole Miss has six receivers with 30 or more receptions this season.
What Ole Miss has on defense
Ole Miss' hybrid 4-2-5 defense comes equipped with arguably one of the most talented defensive line units in the country. Though their stats don't necessarily jump off the page, they regularly get pressure on quarterbacks without having to bring extra men and are very good against the run.
Robert Nkemdiche garners the most attention out of this group, and for good reason, but they are extremely athletic across the board. Here's defensive end Marquis Haynes showing off his lateral quickness against one of the best running backs in the country:
Despite the uber-talented defensive line, Ole Miss struggles getting off the field on third down, especially against good passing teams. According to SBNation's Bill C., the Rebels are ranked 44th in passing down S&P+ and 66th in passing down success rate. If you're going to beat Ole Miss, the offensive formula seems to be through the short and intermediate passing game.
Under the radar players to keep an eye on
Mike Hilton may be the most important player on the Ole Miss defense. He can play any position in the secondary, is a sure tackler who is outstanding in run support (11 tackles for loss this season), and always seems to be in the right position to make plays.
DeMarquis Gates was thrust into the starting role at outside linebacker after an undisclosed health problem landed four-year starter Denzel Nkemdiche in the hospital. Gates is playing his best football late in the season and now leads the team in tackles.
Damore'ea Stringfellow is going to burn opposing defenses that put too much emphasis on stopping Treadwell. He's got the size, speed, and physicality that makes him a nightmare for any team's No. 2 corner.
Notable players out for Sugar Bowl
Defensive end Fadol Brown: Broken foot
Safety Tony Connor: Torn meniscus
Center Robert Conyers: Torn ACL
Linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche: Recovering from unspecified hospital visit