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The Rebel offense’s ceiling will be decided up front

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The same group that couldn’t sustain success in 2016 may be poised for a breakout year.

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

So much of predicting how Ole Miss will fare on offense in 2017 entails looking at what pieces they’re bringing back, and despite not having much returning production on the surface, there may be enough talent at the skill positions to make up for that.

That doesn’t take into consideration the state of the offensive line, and given how much Matt Luke’s group has determined the fate of the entire team in the past, they deserve a closer look.

On its own, having an offensive line with lots of starts the previous year doesn’t necessarily correlate heavily with future success, and it’s tricky in general to project a line’s impact with limited numbers. Stability up front manifests itself in a lot of ways, and ends up being some combination of experience, raw talent, coaching, and injury luck.

What can’t be ignored, however, is just how many more quality snaps the 2017 group will come into the season with compared to last year. Here’s how much experience the offensive lines have had over the past three seasons compared to this one.

Year Prior Games Prior Starts
Year Prior Games Prior Starts
2014 51 23
2015 99 65
2016 100 27
2017 79 52
Prior Games/Starts only include the season before. Numbers from http://stats.ncaa.org/team/433/roster/12424

Overall, that 2016 group averaged 4.8 starts the year prior, and had a converted guard in Rod Taylor starting seven games at left tackle. The most games any lineman had started in prior to the Florida State opener was seven from then-sophomore Sean Rawlings. So much of the offense’s second-half struggles had to do with an overwhelmed young front getting exhausted against elite defenses, but that won’t be an excuse this time around.

With the exception of one missed game from Rawlings, 2017’s projected starting five played the entire previous season and averaged 8.2 starts. Greg Little and Alex Givens each started only five the previous year, but one of those guys is a former five-star recruit.

The best available example of what a Luke-coached line can do when players are coming in with significant past experience is the 2015 season. That offensive line was close to the same group as the year before, but the seven-game suspension of Laremy Tunsil not only meant less depth for half of the season, but it forced players to shift over to positions that weren’t as natural a fit for them.

Once Tunsil rejoined the team for the Texas A&M game, his presence was immediately felt. Below is a comparison of the Rebel offense against Power 5 opponents before and after the suspension.

Without Tunsil With Tunsil
Without Tunsil With Tunsil
Success Rate 39% 51%
Yards per Play 5.8 7.4
Sack Rate 8.30% 3%
Opportunity Rate 35% 46%
Stuff Rate 34% 18%

The greatest impact was on the ground, as they jumped from a mediocre 3.9 yards per carry to 5.8. During that stretch without Tunsil, 34 percent of the offense’s runs were stopped at or before the line of scrimmage, which would have ranked dead last nationally. With Tunsil, their ability to gain five or more yards 46 percent of the time would have ranked behind only Baylor and Ohio State. In short, it helps to be able to deploy the players you had planned on using going into Week 1.

As far as raw talent is concerned, this new starting five averages out to be a higher rated group of recruits than the 2015 line, using the 247Sports composite score.

Year 2015 2017
Year 2015 2017
Left Tackle Laremy Tunsil Greg Little
0.9975 0.9991
Left Guard Justin Bell Javon Patterson
0.8437 0.9739
Center Ben Still Sean Rawlings
0.8522 0.8426
Right Guard Jordan Sims Jordan Sims
0.8737 0.8737
Right Tackle Fahn Cooper Alex Givens
0.8797 0.8669

Whether or not Little turns out to be the same force of nature that Tunsil was, Ole Miss enters 2017 with some relatively seasoned linemen, especially compared to the year before. If some injury forces them to lean on snaps from the redshirt freshmen trio of Eli Johnson, Jack DeFoor, and Bryce Matthews, that could be a problem, but for all we know, they could be ready to go.

Depth is seemingly always an issue for most position groups at Ole Miss. The difference here is that the coaches have had a firm idea of their starting five since even before spring practice, and they have a larger-than-usual pool of capable, albeit inexperienced, young linemen to utilize if need be.

This line doesn’t boast quite as many meaningful reps as the 2015 squad, but if this starting group can remain intact, it’ll go a long way in maximizing the production of a potent, Shea Patterson-led offense.