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Ole Miss needs to fix its running game to have a shot at the Playoff

After a fast start in 2015, the Rebels' ground game -- particularly the short-yardage and goal line packages -- is starting to look a lot like it did in 2014. Can the return of healthy (and, ahem, suspended) O-linemen solve the problem?

Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

It's easy to buy into optimistic offseason hype. Ole Miss fans eagerly lapped up the summer talk that a Rebel team that was awful at running the ball in 2014 was making the necessary adjustments to turn the ground game around in 2015. Javon Patterson and Robert Conyers were going to bring reliability to the interior of the O-line; Jordan Wilkins and Akeem Judd were the physical power backs that had been missing; Hugh Freeze was emphasizing "dirty runs" (stop giggling) and having his backs line up tighter to the QB to get them to the line of scrimmage quicker.

After the Rebs racked up an SEC-leading 553 rushing yards in their first two games, it looked like things were going according to plan.

But in the two games since, Ole Miss has averaged an unimpressive 3.3 yards per carry. Big (and let's be honest, kinda fluky) plays from the passing game carried the Rebs past Bama, but with Swag Kelly struggling against Vandy, the offense sputtered in the red zone last weekend.

To be fair, Ole Miss' rushing S&P+ rank is a solid 32nd in the country right now (it finished 89th last season), per Football Study Hall. But a chunk of that (admittedly adjusted) data came against FCS scrub UT Martin and a Fresno State team that currently ranks 121st in the country in defensive run efficiency. Against real competition, the Rebel running game has looked far too similar to its 2014 version. Until that gets fixed, it will be a major barrier to this team's Playoff dreams.

History says bad rushing dooms your title hopes.

The Rebs are currently averaging 5.5 yards per carry, but if they keep up the 3.3 pace they had in two SEC games, they'll quickly drop towards the 4.2 they averaged in 2014. History says a number like that would make it near-impossible to make the Playoff: of the 20 teams that have finished in the top four in the last five years*, none have averaged less than 4.3 yards per carry and only two (2014 Florida State and 2013 Michigan State) averaged less than 4.8.

*For the 2014 season I obviously used the Playoff committee's ranking. For 2010-13, I used the final AP rankings.

Short-yardage situations are still a major problem.

It should be noted that Ole Miss has had no problem running the ball outside the tackles. The Rebs successfully attacked Bama on the edges and Jaylen Walton racked up 133 yards by beating Vandy on the outside. It's in the interior that the ground game has faltered, which has been particularly evident in short-yardage situations. Ole Miss ranks second to last in the country in power success rate, a stat that Football Outsiders defines as "the percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown."

6'1, 214-pound sophomore Jordan Wilkins and 5'11, 222-pound junior Akeem Judd were supposed to provide burlier options for running inside, but they've had just 16 combined carries in the two SEC games. Freeze has continued to rely on sweeps and off-tackle runs from the 5'8, 172-pound Walten, who's toted it 33 times during conference play.

The goal line offense has been particularly awful. Of the 17 plays that the Rebs ran inside the five-yard line against Bama and Vandy (excluding field goal attempts), they scored a touchdown on just four of them. Eight of those were runs for no gain or a loss.

Freeze has taken some flak for his, let's call it "nontraditional" play-calling on the goal-line. Four of the 17 plays were passes and five of them were runs by someone other than a running back. But can you really blame Freeze? Backs have offensive linemen being driven into their laps as soon as they take the handoff. The eight times a running back carried inside the five against Bama and Vandy, they averaged just 0.13 yards and scored just two touchdowns. (And one of those touchdowns doesn't really count in terms of a traditional rush: it was jet sweep to Wilkins on fourth and goal against Bama).

Freeze knows that his O-line is going to allow penetration; all he can do is put 300-pounders Jeremy Liggins and Robert Nkemdiche in and hope they fall forward.

Robert Nkemdiche TD run

Handing off to Nkemdiche isn't a gimmick play at this point. It's legitimately Ole Miss' best option on the goal line.

The running game can improve ... hopefully.

I know what you're thinking: once the NCAA stops being a bunch of dicks, Laremy Tunsil is going to swoop in and save the day. But a left tackle can only have so much impact on the running game. Ole Miss is doing just fine running off-tackle; it's those runs up the gut behind the guards and center that are causing problems. And remember that Tunsil was on the field when the Ole Miss ground game was looking like garbage in 2014. Tunsil will certainly provide a boost in run blocking, but he's not the cure-all solution.

More important, I'd argue, are the healthy returns of guards Justin Bell and Rod Taylor and center Robert Conyers. Freeze said that Bell, the starting right guard who went down in Tuscaloosa and didn't play against Vandy, is going to "try and go" against Florida on Saturday. Conyers seems to be getting over his sprained knee. Taylor is still working back from a preseason shoulder injury that cost him a job as a starting guard, and while I don't think we're going to see him fully healthy at all in 2015, he's expected to play 20 or so snaps in the Swamp.

So the caveat to all of this humbugging about the Rebs' run blocking is that they were essentially down four starters -- Tunsil at LT, Taylor at LG, Conyers at C and Bell at RG -- for Bama and Vandy. Bell and Conyers getting banged up coincided with the arrival of SEC play, so it's difficult to say whether injuries or a spike in competition level has more to do with the the ground struggles. We'll have a much better idea if those two guys end up starting against a Gators D that ranks top 25 in defensive rushing S&P+.

If Ole Miss can move the ball on the ground in the Swamp, they can feel a whole lot better about their chances of making the Playoff.