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This isn't the same Memphis team as last year, but Ole Miss should still take it seriously

As confident as the Rebels may (and should) be heading into Saturday, they can’t afford to laugh off the Tigers’ soft schedule wins.

Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday, Ole Miss will face a very different Memphis team than the one that scored a shocking home upset over the Rebels last season. Gone is head coach Justin Fuente, lured off to the ACC by Virginia Tech. Gone is star quarterback Paxton Lynch, who, in no small part due to his 384-yard, three-touchdown performance against the Rebels last year, was a first-round pick by the Denver Broncos. Gone are three of the top five receivers, two of the top three tacklers and an all-conference blindside protector.

Just like last year's team, however, the Tigers head into the Ole Miss game with a spotless record. Sure, the 3-0 start has come against an FCS school, Kansas and Bowling Green, but Memphis deserves credit for outscoring that trio 155-27 and currently ranking 25th in Bill C.’s S&P+ ratings (last year’s team finished 55th). If the Tigers' upset in 2015 taught us anything, it was that unexpectedly good teams have a way of transcending how we might view that program’s historical status. In other words, don't shrug off Memphis’ early season success just because they're Memphis. New head coach Mike Norvell has this team playing at a high level.

It may help to get a more accurate and objective view of how this year's Memphis team has performed relative to the 2015 group.

Memphis has been better on defense, which may or may not stick.

The main difference between this and last year’s Memphis squads is the dramatic improvement on the defensive end, albeit against weak competition. The Tigers currently sit at fourth in the country in terms of overall defensive efficiency and first in preventing opposing offenses from finishing drives. Even with a new defensive coordinator, an improvement on this end was never out of the question given that a heavy majority of the defensive rotation returned this season.

As previously noted, however, it's not like those efficient performances have come against offensive juggernauts. Here's what Kansas and Bowling Green have done offensively this season.

Overall efficiency




36% (115th)

40% (79th)

29% (125th)

Bowling Green

39% (97th)

31% (126th)

48% (35th)

You could make the point that both teams performed worse against Memphis than they did against the rest of their schedule, but there’s only so much value we can glean from three games. It’s worth noting that in 2015, there was a pretty big discrepancy in how the Memphis secondary performed depending on the other team’s ability to throw the ball. Maybe that’s what’s going on this year, but the reality is we just need to see more games out of them before making any absolute judgments.

Even against the weaker competition, Memphis’s tendency to give up big plays is lingering - the Tigers currently rank 99th in explosive plays allowed. This could benefit an Ole Miss attack that boasts the second most explosive offense in the nation despite facing elite Florida State and Alabama defenses.

The Tiger offense is still potent, but more reliant on big plays than efficiency.

There have been very few adjustments on the offensive end despite the coaching change. Norvell employs more spread sets than Fuente did, but he was also known at Arizona State to occasionally use formations with multiple tight ends, as well as the pistol. The general tendencies are a little different, as Norvell seems more self-aware of the Tigers’ inefficiency on the ground, having run the (dang) ball on 41 percent of standard downs so far this year compared to 56 percent in 2015.

Coming into the Ole Miss game last year, Memphis had a top-five offense in terms of efficiency, and Paxton Lynch was averaging close to 10 yards per throw. They specialized in gaining chunks of yards rather than timing up a big play, and on the plays that were explosive, only 17 percent resulted in a touchdown. That number is up to 30 percent this year with Riley Ferguson at the helm, and they’re currently the third most explosive offense in the country. Considering they weren’t able to move the ball very consistently last year against Ole Miss with an offense more efficient than this year's, they’ll likely continue to rely on big plays pretty heavily this game. The young Rebel secondary gave up 11 pass plays of 20 yards or more against FSU and Bama, but seems to be growing up quickly after shutting down Georgia's pass attack last week.

Similar to last year, Saturday’s game could come down to field position and turnovers.

Success Rate

Turnover Spread

Red Zone Trips

Avg. Starting Field position

Ole Miss










*includes turnovers on downs

Despite Ole Miss being more consistent at getting the yards they needed on play-by-play basis, Memphis was better at capitalizing on the times they were able to move the ball. Half of the Tigers’ offensive drives ended in a touchdown or field goal, compared to just 29 percent for the Rebels. An advantage in field position meant that Memphis’ touchdown drives only took 54 yards on average, while Ole Miss’s took 78. The story has been the same this season, as Norvell’s squad has enjoyed an averaging starting field position at the 38 yard line (second nationally) and a turnover margin of +8 (third). While good fortune in these categories can often be a sign of future regression, we can’t assume that decline happens anytime soon.

Freeze indicated in the post-Georgia press conference that if Chad Kelly avoids a few turnovers in prior games, we’re not talking about the drawbacks of a hurry-up offense that can’t consistently run the ball, or even fretting over the early shakiness from the secondary. It may end being as simple as that on Saturday, but regardless, Memphis earned everyone’s respect after last year’s upset. While the "ain’t played nobody" narrative may still be alive and well among some when talking about this matchup, Ole Miss can’t afford to brush off Memphis’s strong play as unsustainable.