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There’s a way for Ole Miss to compete in the Egg Bowl. It’s just not likely to work.

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The Rebs are explosive enough on offense to make this interesting, but they need to commit on both sides.

NCAA Football: Alabama at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

It feels like ages ago that Ole Miss got trounced at home to a Mississippi State team that evidently still had something to play for. One would have hoped for the Rebels to have made some strides in a year’s time, but that’s not quite the case.

We’ve been looking for ways to convince ourselves that Ole Miss has evolved to some degree over the past year, but not much has changed in terms of this team’s strengths and weaknesses. While the Rebels have continued to flounder in 2017, Dan Mullen’s team has returned to stability, having already improved from last regular season’s record by three wins.

Just as there are reasons to abandon hope before a snap is played, there are reasons, albeit fewer, to believe the Rebels can pull off an upset, aside from the fact that the Egg Bowl tends to get weird. Even then, Ole Miss’ keys to the game should be interpreted more as prerequisites to competing, rather than a surefire path to victory.

Ole Miss’ offense ranks 9th in explosiveness. Mississippi State’s defense ranks 105th.

To point out that the Rebels need to make big plays to even have a shot Thursday isn’t a groundbreaking discovery, but this is the only notable advantage they have on this side of the ball.

What’s more encouraging is that the Bulldogs are 124th in Passing IsoPPP, but how exactly they capitalize here is a whole other story. Todd Grantham’s group excels at bringing pressure, ranking fourth nationally in adjusted sack rate. Given the Rebels’ offensive line woes against A&M, it’s hard to imagine Jordan Ta’amu consistently having time to look far downfield.

When State gets a bit overaggressive, Ole Miss’ best bet may lie in the short-to-intermediate passing game, and they obviously have the athletes to make break free in the open field after the catch. The Bulldogs are built to knock teams off schedule early, so gaining yards in chunks is imperative.

The Rebels have to sell out to stop the run.

While the defense took this approach last year with grim results, they don’t have much of an alternative.

In that blowout, Nick Fitzgerald completed just eight throws for 109 yards, but gained 20 or more yards on five separate occasions running the ball. Preventing the sub-par passer from playing to his strengths will be crucial to stifling this offense.

That a Fitzgerald-led offense ranks 20th in Passing S&P+, which is adjusted for opponent, is perplexing. When looking at their raw numbers through the air, they’re 36th in success rate and 118th in IsoPPP, so they have to be getting a generous strength-of-schedule bump. Regardless, the now-seasoned quarterback still struggles mightily when backed into obvious passing situations.

Nick Fitzgerald, 2017

Down Type Completions Attempts Yards Yds/Attempt Yds/Completion Success Rate
Down Type Completions Attempts Yards Yds/Attempt Yds/Completion Success Rate
Standard 99 159 1127 7.1 11.4 52%
Passing 47 104 464 4.5 9.9 31%

Given a large enough sample size, just about any quarterback will perform worse in passing downs, but the guy’s numbers dip dramatically when the offense is off schedule. He’s completing just over half of his attempts on the year...and none of this may matter. Despite last week’s eye-opening second-half from the Landsharks, they’re still fully capable of getting gashed on the ground. Fitzgerald may have weaknesses, but it may never come to the point that they’re really tested.

Ole Miss may have a path to at least keeping this thing competitive, but they haven’t progressed significantly from the team that lost by 35 points a year ago. What remains after acknowledging that harsh reality is the hope that maybe Matt Luke’s squad will depart from football norms and take on the image of the chaos team that we’ve been waiting for.