Less than a week before Ole Miss’ season opener against South Alabama, the idea of the Rebels losing to what should be an outmatched Sun Belt team has already been tossed around. That thought didn’t creep out of nowhere, either, as the Jaguars have time and again shocked programs they had no business beating.
Mississippi State’s 20-21 dud last year in Starkville at the hands of USA is one of the more recent examples, and there’s a lot of value in seeing if anything that happened in that Week 1 upset could apply to Ole Miss. Matt Luke’s team will have more certainty personnel-wise than the Bulldogs did to start last year (at least on offense), but they shouldn’t consider themselves any less susceptible to an embarrassment to kick off 2017.
While State hadn’t quite figured out their offensive identity yet (Nick Fitzgerald was on the bench), they generally didn’t have that much trouble moving the ball against the Jaguars. They put up a respectable 43 percent success rate compared to USA’s 40 percent, and gained seven yards per carry. The Bulldogs even enjoyed an average starting field position at their own 28, eight yards better than USA, and still got beat.
Given that South Alabama lost the efficiency battle, certain things had to break right for them to pull this off.
USA was all or nothing on offense.
The biggest difference maker was the Jaguars’ ability to generate big plays, as they gained 20 yards or more on nine separate occasions. Quarterback Dallas Davis (great name) was the primary catalyst, responsible for eight of those nine explosive plays through the air and completing 70 percent of his passes.
There are no guarantees as to how much, if at all, Ole Miss’ defense has improved heading into the opener, but their weakness of giving up huge gains was more on the ground than through the air last season. USA managed just 94 yards on 29 carries that Saturday, good news for a Rebel defense that ranked 121st in Rushing IsoPPP.
Wesley McGriff’s secondary could get similarly torched this Saturday, but it’s a much more experienced unit than 2016 with slightly fewer depth concerns than the front seven. One would hope that whatever glaring flaws do exist on this side of the ball aren’t enough to get dismantled by a Sun Belt team. New starting QB Cole Garvin will come in with more reps than Davis had when he took down State, but the Landsharks should get some cushion from their own potent offense.
MSU couldn’t keep up with that explosiveness.
While the Bulldogs were more efficient that day, they didn’t capitalize on their ball movement nearly as well as the Jaguars, gaining 20+ yards just four times. Dan Mullen’s conservative dink-and-dunk approach with Damian Williams proved ineffective, as his 20 completions amounted to less than 150 yards.
When they did put together long drives, they didn’t always finish the job. Just two of the Bulldogs’ trips inside the Jags’ 40-yard line resulted in a touchdown, the other four ending on two field goals and two misses, one of which I have provided out of courtesy.
Kane Wommack, former Ole Miss grad assistant and son of the recently retired defensive coordinator, is in his second year coaching the Jaguars’ defense. After improving the unit from 107th to 71st in defensive S&P+ in year one, he’ll be relying a good bit on newcomers this time around.
Ole Miss enters their opening bout with the Jags in a better situation offensively than State did, having full faith from the get-go in their starting QB. Whether or not all the Shea Patterson hype comes to fruition in the long-term, Phil Longo has the weapons to take more risks against USA than Mullen did last September.
It’s hard to imagine the Rebels struggling to put up points without some severe hiccups that keep them from finishing drives. Even if there are some missteps in the red zone, the offense should see enough scoring opportunities to make an impact. On top of that, the absence of Hugh Freeze means Patterson may actually stay on the field through entire possessions.
A lot of misfortune would have to converge all at once for Ole Miss to blow this, but it’s plausible. South Alabama’s developed a reputation for being a high variance team, and the scary end of that streakiness could come out Saturday. One benefit of all the offseason’s terribleness is that there are no real consequences in losing, because nothing matters.