Ole Miss football has of course removed itself from the 2017 postseason, following an amended Notice of Allegations from the NCAA back in February. That the Rebs won’t see an SEC championship game or bowl won’t preclude them from playing in the regular season, though, a regular season that includes four non-SEC opponents.
The Rebels will meet three out-of-conference foes in September — two at home, one away — then Louisiana Lafayette for a November tune-up before the rivalry game with Mississippi State. All four games are winnable, with that trip out to Cal perhaps the most difficult challenge imaginable that’s not taking place in Tuscaloosa. Really, it’s the away at Cal that presents the most difficult challenge among the Rebs’ non-conference slate, but perhaps a less formidable task than, say, beginning the year against Florida State in freaking Orlando.
So with that in mind, let’s take a look at each of those four non-conference opponents, which may well see Ole Miss go 4-0 outside of SEC play.
South Alabama (Sept. 2)
As Bill Connelly points out, the Jaguars are something of a chaos team. In 2016, for instance, they housed San Diego State by 18 points, but not before taking down Mississippi State in Starkville to begin the year. They then turned around and lost to a pair of sub-.500 teams in Georgia Southern and ULM by a combined 22 points.
It bears repeating that the South Alabama Jaguars beat the Mississippi State Bulldogs — nominally an SEC program — in Starkville.
So the Jags are all over the place, and only one of two teams will show up in Oxford to begin the year: either that pesky club that hung around just long enough to beat State at home last year, or the one that lost by 15 to Georgia Southern. There will be no in between.
Yes, as Bill C. further points out, this Jaguars team has a proclivity for big plays on offense, a particularly troublesome prospect for the back end of the Rebs’ secondary, which, though improved and bolstered by the return of Ken Webster, remains relatively untested. Happy chance, then, that they get to open the year against a team that can be explosive when they need to be. They finished the season ranked 84th in the country in offensive explosiveness, just above their S&P+ of 93rd.
If one were to make a prediction here, the Rebs will probably need a 35-point effort or more to start the season 1-0.
UT Martin (Sept. 9)
The Skyhawks are members of the FCS, and after a 7-5 campaign in 2017, they failed to make the postseason. They in fact dropped their last game against Jacksonville State, 33-7, after opening the season with a 28-7 loss to Cincinnati. In between they dropped 84 points — yes, you read that right — on something called Bacone, while somehow allowing six points.
This second cupcake of the year shouldn’t worry Ole Miss fans in the least, and we’re not going to devote too much time to UTM in this particular space, but suffice to say that one should expect Shea Patterson to not be on the field in the third quarter and beyond. If he is, something horrible has happened and, here, friendo, have some bourbon.
at Cal (Sept. 16)
This is the doozy. A long trek over two timezones for a 9:30 p.m. CT kickoff. That’s 7:30 p.m. for the players’ body clocks, but long travel like this always disrupts internal tickers. Add to it the fact that Cal sported the seventh highest ranked offensive S&P+ last year, cranking out just over 37 points per game in the ever wondrous Pac-12. That was good for 22nd in the country in 2017.
The Bears further played one of the most entertaining games of the year on Oct. 12, when they upended a down-year Oregon, 52-49, at home. They also choked up a hairball against Stanford, holding a first-half lead that eventually sputtered for a 45-31 loss. What a crazy night that was, especially since Ole Miss failed against LSU, 38-21, just a few hours earlier.
Where Ole Miss can make some headway against this Cal club is on offense. The Bears were giving up nearly 43 points per outing last season, which ranked them No. 126 in that category. Though their overall S&P+ ranked at No. 51 — Ole Miss finished the year ranked No. 27 — they’re defensive S&P+ was a mere 107th.
It’ll be tough sledding, and Ole Miss will have to score to do it, but this game is certainly winnable. Let’s set the over/under at 80, light the fuse, and sprint for cover.
Louisiana Lafayette (Nov. 11)
The Ragin’ Cajuns are bad. They’re not UT Martin bad, but they also finished the season ranked No. 102 in Bill C.’s S&P+. At 6-6, they did manage a bowl game, but lost by a touchdown to Southern Miss, 28-21. The year before that they finished 4-8 and failed to make a bowl game.
If Cal thrives on points over defensive shrewdness, ULL is just the opposite. The Cajuns ranked outside of the top 100 in offensive S&P+, points per game, explosiveness, and finishing drives. They gave up just 25 points per game last year, though, which ranked No. 46 in the land. That performance of course came in the lowly Sun Belt, which does after all include Appalachian State and Georgia Southern.
In any case, we will by the time this game rolls around know quite well the demeanor, ceiling, and floor for this Rebel outfit in 2017. ULL represents that detested patsy opponent in the week leading up to rivalry week. The Rebs will be coming off a road trip to Kentucky, yet another walk through — barring injury or just complete annihilation of players’ wills to live.
We shall see.