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Ole Miss may have confirmed its offensive identity in the loss to Alabama

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For better or for worse, we've begun to see this Rebel offense for what it is: a talented passing team whose inefficiency on the ground makes it difficult to retain balance.

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Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

A 1-2 start was never going to feel great for Ole Miss, but it was also the most logical outcome given the elite teams the Rebels have had to face early on. Blowing a pair of three-touchdown leads makes it sting even more, but I believe the reasons for Ole Miss unraveling twice in three weeks are a mixture of their own self-destruction and shortcomings, as well as a natural byproduct of facing decidedly good teams and deeper rosters. It may be worth looking into what exactly went wrong against Alabama and determining what the coaching staff has actual control over to avoid some similar implosion and leverage the team’s strengths over the rest of the season.

First, a few advanced metric definitions:

  • An offense’s success rate is a way of measuring how well the offense stays on schedule each down. Football Outsiders defines a successful play as one of the following: gaining 50 percent of the yards you need on first down, 70 percent on second down, or 100 percent on third/fourth down.
  • An explosive play is defined here as a run of 12 or more yards or a pass of 20 or more.  Explosive play ratio is the percentage of a team's successful plays that fit this definition.

  • Passing downs are defined as second down with at least 8 yards to go or third/fourth down with at least 5 yards to go. Standard downs cover all other situations on offense.

Ole Miss’ plan for moving the ball (mostly) worked, but so did Alabama’s.

It was essentially decided before the game even started that Ole Miss wasn’t going to win an overall efficiency battle with Alabama. Clemson was the only team in the past year to have done so, and they did it with a consensus top 10 offensive line, putting up an overall success rate of 48 percent to Bama’s 39 percent in last year’s title game. Planning to consistently gain chunks of yards against Saban-coached defenses is a bit of a fool’s errand considering the makeup of Hugh Freeze’s squad, so capitalizing on explosive plays was imperative.

Yards per play

Yards per successful play

Explosive play ratio

Ole Miss

7.2

17.3

37%

Alabama

6.2

12.7

27%

These figures would suggest that Ole Miss won the contest of big gains by a pretty significant margin, but Alabama’s few explosive plays were perfectly timed. The Tide’s three touchdown drives (from their actual offense) were made up of three, four, and five plays. It was their longer drives that ended in a field goal attempt or punt, oddly enough.

The offense’s stubborn play-calling was its downfall.

It’s reasonable to think that a team that calls 41 passing plays to 32 runs must be experiencing similar success with each considering such a balanced attack. That wasn't the case. Ole Miss got the yards it needed 54 percent of the time when throwing the ball, as opposed to 16 percent when running.

Most of those runs came early in a series, which made matters worse: 18 of the Rebels' 32 rushes came on first down. Without Akeem Judd’s 23-yard touchdown run in the first two minutes of the game, Ole Miss averaged 2.1 yards per carry on first down. This got predictable after a while, and put Chad Kelly in a lot of difficult passing downs. The offense thrived in situations where a pass was less expected, putting up a success rate of 65 percent when passing on standard downs.

The second half of 2015 was evidence of the Rebel offense’s full potential with even a mildly competent running game, when they excelled at staying on schedule and incorporated a healthy mix of explosive plays. It didn’t take long on Saturday to realize they weren’t going to find success on the ground, as Ole Miss’s rushing success rate of 16 percent was well below Bama’s 2015 defensive average of 29. Determining whether a run is called to set up a pass later in a drive is an imperfect science, and maybe some element of that was hidden in the play selection against Alabama. But the numbers suggest Ole Miss could have experienced some real consistency moving the ball if they had fully committed to the pass, particularly on early downs.

Welp, Bama found its rushing attack.

Meanwhile, Lane Kiffin’s offense managed 7.0 yards per carry, overcoming some evident growing pains within the offensive line and backfield. The signs were there that the Tide were due for a breakout performance, as much of their running troubles (36 percent rushing success rate through the first two weeks) were simply part of an inexperienced offensive unit struggling to function cohesively. The opportunities for big gains had been there all along, but it apparently took some time for the backs’ vision to develop and for the linemen to get on the same page. These improvements, along with the threat of Jalen Hurts taking off himself through a zone read or scramble, yielded a 58 percent success rate on the ground (compared to 45 percent overall in 2015).

Chad Kelly (understandably) struggled against the pass rush.

It was already well-documented that Alabama excelled at pressuring quarterbacks even when just sending four rushers. Last year, they sent an extra defender into the backfield just 19.5 percent of plays, compared to the national average of 28.5. On the other side of the ball, Chad Kelly had plenty of experience when being pursued by pass rushers. No one puts up amazing numbers under pressure, but Kelly’s passer rating dropped just 13 points in 2015 when under pressure (NCAA average was 35 points).

His numbers regressed more than usual when under pressure against Alabama on Saturday, including the two turnovers that resulted in defensive touchdowns. Eventually, the offensive line should find some stability, and Ole Miss likely isn’t going to face a tougher pass rush, so it’s not crazy to think his dip in numbers here was more of an outlier.

Manufacturing longer drives may not be in the cards for Ole Miss.

*the number of plays for each drive is shown above/below each bar

Freeze summed it up pretty well in Monday’s presser, maintaining that a consistently fast tempo, despite its potential pitfalls, is what makes the offense so effective. The losses to Florida State and Alabama showed what can go wrong with an up-tempo offense if you commit a string of consecutive three-and-outs against savvy coaches. Ole Miss has repeatedly exhausted itself by not getting critical first downs and staying on the field. The Rebel defense rested on average for a minute and half on Saturday and just one minute against FSU on Labor Day. An increasingly depleted roster makes answers on that end even more difficult to find.

There’s reason to believe this will get better, as options for finding needed yards will hopefully open up, and the quality of defenses they face may not match what they’ve seen thus far. Ole Miss doesn’t have the resources of other teams to slow things down on offense. In recent history, their version of running the clock out with a sizable lead has been playing bend-don’t-break cover-3 defense while allowing the other team to slowly eat up yards, which has worked pretty well against talented teams before.

Going forward

Ole Miss may have found its offensive identity through both its massive successes and failures against loaded defenses. The opportunity for a balanced attack may still be there, but part of me is craving an empty spread formation until the opposing defense can prove it can stop the pass consistently. Of course, this is antithetical to the finesse spread, which is predicated on presenting defenses with conflicting looks about whether to stop the run or pass. We’ll only know more in the coming games, but regardless of what the team’s apparent strengths are, there has to be a more refined process of making in-game adjustments based on what has and hasn’t worked up to that point.