After five games that featured, um, mixed results, Ole Miss’ season and identity have deviated a good bit from the general idea we had going in.
We thought that, while this offense was dealing with a lot of roster turnover, particularly in the passing game, there was enough talent — especially at the quarterback and wide receiver positions — to produce at a high level. We were also prepared for a defense that had matured a tad personnel-wise, but would likely remain unreliable. That at least didn’t surprise us.
Instead, Phil Longo’s air raid has been less stable than fans may have hoped for against real competition, while the defense has fallen off a cartoon cliff over the last two games.
There still remains a chance that, despite everything dumb taking place off the field, this team could exude frenetic energy and downright fun from here on out, making life hard for teams with an actual bowl to play for, because what care have we for them? Perhaps it’s too early to make absolute judgments, but mid-October seems a good time to check in and assess just what the hell is going on here.
This offense is explosive, but not often enough.
Let’s start with some good but not so good news. Ole Miss currently ranks No. 6 in explosiveness (measured with IsoPPP). This is good news because they can shred off yards at a single pop quite well.
This is bad news because explosive plays don’t happen that often. Phil Longo’s group can’t solely rely on this feature because college football is a slow moving turtle that Nick Saban is slowly beating with a stick away from the sea. The turtle will die.
The Rebels’ ability to maximize space in the open field is what eventually separated them from lesser opponents in their first two games. Now that they’re playing actual Power Five teams, they’ve failed to stay on the field long enough for their big-play potential to really impact the game.
Ball movement has been too sporadic lately, as the offense has averaged a paltry 33 percent success rate over the last three games (excluding garbage time).
Ole Miss has struggled to stay on schedule.
The Rebels are rolling in at No. 44 in success rate, and that figure includes a generous bump from those first two cupcake games. Over this losing streak, they haven’t taken advantage of standard downs, getting the yards they’ve needed just 40 percent of the time in these situations (national average is 46). They’ve faced an average third down distance of more than seven yards during this stretch. That seems rather bad.
A good chunk of Ole Miss’ inefficiencies can be attributed to a lack of balance — they’re dead last among FBS teams in terms of how often they run the ball on standard downs. All season long, the offense has tried to compromise between convincing defenses to respect the run (ha) while still playing to their strengths in the passing game. Against teams that require fewer resources to cause disruption up front, it hasn’t gone so well.
Ole Miss has generally thrived when throwing on first down, gaining 12.8 yards per attempt and posting a strong 55 percent success rate — and that’s just looking at the last three games. When they don’t connect, though, there’s no steady running game to gain back at least some of those yards to set up a manageable third down.
Any offensive shortcomings are exacerbated by a Rebel defense that can’t make a stop and give them some time to produce.
It’s starting to look like 2016 all over again on defense.
It wasn’t too long ago that we were singing Wesley McGriff’s praises for his group’s tenacity on that terrible night in Berkeley. This unit had shown some real improvement, albeit against a banged up Cal offense.
After Alabama and Auburn combined for 110 points against Ole Miss, it’s clear that they haven’t fixed everything. Since the Tide’s punt on their first possession, the defense has allowed a touchdown on every single drive, excluding garbage time. The bar is real low right now. This group’s only hope is to force offenses into passing downs, but they don’t have the front to stuff runs or create negative plays in the backfield, nor can they stop either the run or pass without completely selling out.
The Rebels were 121st last year in rushing IsoPPP, and while they’ve technically improved to 119th, THAT’S STILL NOT GREAT, BOB! Once runners get to the second level, it’s hard to not just assume that they’ll reach the end zone. Auburn didn’t even need to pass to create big plays against this defense, as they gained 12 or more yards on the ground nine times last Saturday. These plays alone added up to nearly 200 yards. Ahem, TWO HUNDRED YARDS is a lot of yards.
The good news is that Auburn and Alabama appear to be the most well rounded teams in the SEC West, and now Ole Miss gets to face some conference foes that look about as bad, starting with a Vanderbilt squad that currently sits at 72nd in S&P+. A chunk of this team’s missteps over the past few weeks could be part of some growing pains, while other issues simply aren’t going away.
Either way, Vanderbilt’s always a chaotic event, whether at home or away, and it’s unfortunate to say, but this weekend will seriously prove Ole Miss to pass some muster or not.