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4 questions Ole Miss needs to answer after its bye week

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With a brutal September in the rearview and the expanse of the SEC West schedule approaching, here are the biggest questions facing the Rebs.

Alabama v Mississippi Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

1. Is there a fix at linebacker?

An already dire situation at linebacker got that much worse when DeMarquis Gates, the starting stinger and the team-leader in tackles, was benched against Memphis for an undisclosed violation of team rules. Former walk-on Tayler Polk was a liability in his place, and there aren’t many other options on a perilously thin depth chart. Judging from Hugh Freeze’s comments after practice on Tuesday, it sounds like Gates could be in the lineup against Arkansas next week.

The more concerning long-term problem is in the middle, where grad transfer Rommel Mageo has been a bust through the first five games. His only start came against FCS opponent Wofford and he’s most recently been replaced by JUCO transfer Detric Bing-Dukes. The 247-pound Bing-Dukes was fantastic against Georgia’s downhill attack, but his lack of lateral mobility was exposed against Memphis’ spread passing scheme.

So where does Freeze go from here? He said on Tuesday that Gates will likely have to spend some time in the middle and that Willie Hibbler, a freshman who played tight end in high school, might see some action at stinger. Also keep an eye out for Shawn Curtis, who will likely move from defensive end to linebacker.

2. Will Greg Little take over for Rod Taylor on the blind side?

Coming into the season, most people assumed Little would have already taken over at this point. The five-star freshman and heir apparent to the Laremy Tunsil throne remains stuck behind converted guard Rod Taylor, who’s consistently struggled against edge rushers. Little has played multiple series in every game and looked good doing it, but the large majority of snaps are still going to the veteran Taylor.

"He's been really solid,” Freeze said of Little after the Bama game. “He's coming on really fast and we really need him to continue to do that. He's doing well."

Let’s see if Little can make up ground on Taylor during the open week.

3. Will the running game continue to improve?

We put together a piece on Monday that suggested the Ole Miss run game has shown an upward trajectory after suffering through rough games against Florida State and Bama, a trend based on yards per carry and rushing success rate. Having gone back and looked at some other advanced stats (namely opportunity rate and line yards per carry), it turns out the ground game was actually pretty solid against the Noles; it was just abandoned when things went south in the second half.

If you take out the game against Bama (which has the No. 1 run defense in the country according to S&P+), the Rebel O-line has had a line yards per carry average of at least 3.3 and an opportunity rate of at least 44 percent against its Power Five opponents. What I’m saying is that Ole Miss isn’t as bad on the ground as you think it is. If the young linemen continue to improve and the run game maintains a baseline competence, nobody is going to stop this offense.

4. Can Chad Kelly cut down on the turnovers?

I know, I know—I sound like a national media talking head. I criticized last year’s “Bad Chad” narrative as lazy and inaccurate, pointing to bad-luck bounces and explaining away his early-season mistakes as the learning curve in a new offense. But neither of those things can account for his seven turnovers through five games this season (add in bad throws that should have been picks against Georgia and Memphis and that figure could very well be nine). His early-season tendency to hold onto the ball led to three back-breaking fumbles against FSU and Bama, while his lingering insistence on forcing passes downfield has turned into four picks. We’ve seen too much of this:

There is a potential solution: give him more freedom to run. Freeze claimed he wasn’t going to put the training wheels on like he did for the better part of last season, yet Kelly is averaging just 5.6 rushing attempts per game (excluding sacks). Compare that to the double-digit attempts over the final three regular-season contests of 2015, none of which included a Swag interception. There’s a statistical correlation between Chad’s rushing attempts and his effectiveness as a passer. With the meat of the conference schedule here, let’s see if he’s granted more opportunity to create with his legs.