When Hugh Freeze was hired, after misguided initial shock and dismay (myself included) fans developed an expectation that he would be an offensive coach. He wouldn't have much success or innovation defensively (particularly after such a "bush league" defensive coordinator hire LOL), but on the other side of the ball, the team would move quickly, spreading the ball around and making things difficult for defenses. The Rebels returned more offensive playmakers than many coaches and fans realized, and the signing of Bo Wallace would put a player under center who could generally get the ball to them.
Last year's Ole Miss defense was, in terms of points allowed, the best in the SEC and in the top five in the entirety of Division I. So that was a recipe for success, right? Great defense? Offensive-minded coach who understands new concepts with a third-year starter at quarterback? Well, yes and no. Which season would you guess, without looking at the data, had the largest sheer offensive output? Second largest? Let's take a look.
As you can see, that first season was actually alright, in terms of overall production. Then things got even better in year two, with offensive output jumping by over 600 yards. Rushing and passing totals were trending up, and the Rebels weren't believed to be losing anyone on offense who was irreplaceable. Their best player, Donte Moncrief, was at least a wide receiver, of which the Rebels had plenty.
But the next year, 2014, production dropped considerably, yielding the lowest output of any season under Hugh Freeze. Why is that? Well, one reason is the list of opponents the Rebels faced. Three of Ole Miss' non-conference opponents won at least nine games. That wasn't the case in past years, as the Rebels generally faced an easy non-conference schedule other than Texas. Another reason though, is a little more glaring.
Ole Miss has seen rushing attempts decline significantly in each of the last two years. The passing attempt increase in 2013 offset it, but in 2014, passing attempts were back down, and rushing attempts were down over by 75 over the course of the year. To put that number in perspective, Jordan Wilkins had just 52 attempts last season as the team's second leading rusher. His rushing attempts could have doubled, and the team total would have still been lower than it was in Freeze's first year as head coach.
So the attempts were lower, yielding lower results. Several times during the season, Freeze talked about how the defense was so good that he was taking a more cautious approach in offensive playcalling, and the number bear that out. So maybe that's not a good barometer by which to judge whether the offense has improved during Freeze's tenure (with the same quarterback starting all three years).
"Why is this chart black when the others are white," you may ask. That's because you're a racist.
If you look at success per attempt, it's pretty easy for Ole Miss fans to understand. In 2012, the field was wide open. There was a decent offensive line (which never suffered an injury), and the team was behind a lot. They were airing it out and trying to get in as many plays as possible. In 2013, the passing game heavily relied on bubble screens to Laquon Treadwell and Donte Moncrief, lowering the yards per passing attempt. There were fewer designed runs for Bo Wallace, since Barry Brunetti would often come in to run those plays. The yards per rushing attempt increased, and everything seemed like it was going to continue clicking. Aside from Moncrief and receiver Ja-Mes Logan, the only thing the offense lost were "replaceable" offensive linemen.
Then things started moving in the other direction. Ole Miss had a slew of long runs against bad teams (and Mississippi State) that skewed the yards per rush, but even then the Rebels' total was down. The passing game got away from the screen game, primarily due to an inability for the receivers to block well enough to mirror the success of 2013. Essentially, the Rebels reached a point later in the year where they couldn't run behind a bad offensive line and couldn't throw screens to act like a running game. When Laquon Treadwell went down with an injury, there was very little the offense could do effectively, and it showed in the Rebels' 30-0 loss to Arkansas and shellacking by TCU in the Peach Bowl. They were one-dimensional, and Bo Wallace (who I like a lot) isn't consistent enough on obvious passing downs to make up for that.
So what can Ole Miss fans expect this season? Who knows? I wish I had an answer. Freeze has seemingly operated with three different offensive approaches within the same overarching shotgun-option style each year. I for one hope that this year's approach isn't the slow-paced offense we saw last season, as I think the key to the Ole Miss running game is speed and misdirection. However, the last thing you want is for an elite defense to have to spend too much time on the field early in the game when the offense goes three and out a lot. It's a balancing game.
Hugh Freeze's job is to figure it out. It's one he's paid more than four million dollars a year to do. He'll probably spend a little time working on it.