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Ole Miss can’t punch above its weight under Matt Luke

Hugh Freeze’s teams made a habit of playing close against top opponents. Luke’s teams have been regularly blown out.

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

Following the 2012 season, there was an atypical amount of excitement surrounding an Ole Miss team that had just gone 7-6 in Hugh Freeze’s first year as head coach. They’d gone 0-5 against top-25 squads (in terms of S&P+), but nearly beat Texas A&M at home and LSU on the road, losing by a combined nine points. Their 19-point loss in Tuscaloosa was closer than the score indicated and gave us an unforgettable, self-serving Nick Saban rant about the perils of the no-huddle offense.

After two years of being embarrassed by top SEC opponents under Houston Nutt, Ole Miss fans were excited to see their team staying in games with the conference’s elite. It was a proof-of-concept season that gave way to optimism about the future of the program.

This, by the way, isn’t meant to celebrate Freeze, a man who’s yet to fully own up to what ended his tenure in Oxford. It’s supposed to highlight the importance of showing life and having a fighting chance every week of the season.

Even at peak recruiting, Ole Miss is never going to match the talent or depth of Alabama, LSU, Auburn, Texas A&M, etc. Freeze was able to overcome that deficiency with innovation, zeal, and an ability to knock teams out of their comfort zone. After 17 games (most recently, an onslaught in Baton Rouge), it feels safe to say that Matt Luke can’t do the same.

Since the start of last year, the Rebels have played and lost to five teams ranked in the top 25 by S&P+: Alabama and LSU twice, as well as Auburn last year. The combined score of those games is 257-73. Most didn’t expect upsets, but it would have meant a hell of a lot to avoid total humiliation.

Luke (2017-18) has been far less competitive against top teams than Freeze (2012-16) was.

Ole Miss Football: Performance against S&P+ Top 25 Teams

Year (Overall Record) W-L Points per Game Opp. Points per Game S&P+ Rank
Year (Overall Record) W-L Points per Game Opp. Points per Game S&P+ Rank
2012 (7-6) 0-5 23.4 41.4 19th
2013 (8-5) 1-5 17.8 26.8 45th
2014 (9-4) 2-4 15.8 25.2 6th
2015 (10-3) 4-1 39.6 30.6 6th
2016 (5-7) 2-4 34 36.5 27th
2017 (6-6) 0-3 16.7 50 42nd
2018 (3-2) 0-2 13 54 47th
S&P+ rankings from Football Outsiders

It wouldn’t have been reasonable to demand Freeze to consistently knock out top-tier opponents, but those 2012-16 teams remained generally competitive regardless of the final outcome, and context-driven ratings like S&P+ rewarded them for it. We can’t say the same for Luke, and 2017 proved he was more than capable of coming up short against even weaker opponents, including Arkansas (finished 67th in S&P+) and Cal (60th).

Wesley McGriff’s defense has been awful against top teams.

When it comes to assigning blame, it all starts with the head coach, but let’s talk about the defense, specifically. Wesley McGriff was brought to Oxford (and inked to an average annual salary of $1.1 million) to patch up a defense that finished 74th in defensive S&P+ in 2016. They finished the next season at 113th in the same category, and are currently sitting in the exact same spot through five games of 2018.

Since the start of last season, McGriff’s group has thrown up plenty of red flags against lesser competition. Recruiting on this side of the ball has certainly been an issue, and it’s undeniable that some of their struggles here are rooted simply in player personnel. If it wasn’t clear before, giving up 38 points in a half to an FCS team showed that coaching has played just as big of a role in their shortcomings.

To no one’s surprise, the defense’s recent ineptitude has been even more apparent against more potent units. Here’s how Ole Miss defenses have played against those top offenses, in terms of offensive (instead of overall) S&P+.

Defensive Performances by Opposing Offense

Era Quality of Opposing Offense Games Points Allowed per Game Yards per Play Allowed
Era Quality of Opposing Offense Games Points Allowed per Game Yards per Play Allowed
2012-2016 S&P+ Top 25 21 27.0 5.4
Others 43 23.1 5.2
2017-2018 S&P+ Top 25 6 47.2 7.4
Others 11 29.3 5.5

Looking at 2017-18, the drop-off in performance is alarming, especially when compared to how tight the Landsharks kept things over the five preceding seasons.

Considering a few teams let up after the game was pretty much decided early, these numbers may actually be an understatement. A few weeks back, Alabama was leading 49-7 after two quarters, and they went out of their way to only score 13 in the second half. Likewise, Bama and Auburn each put up 35 in the first half last season with ease.

The offense hasn’t been able to pick up the slack, to say the least.

The defense’s woes have eliminated the Rebels from contention against good teams before the ball’s been snapped, but their counterpart requires a closer look, too. From a big-picture perspective, offensive coordinator Phil Longo has proven himself to be a good coach at the FBS level in a short amount of time. At some point last season, though, rumblings started up that Longo’s squad was a bit overrated, in that too much of their production came against mediocre to bad defenses. After 17 games, this is less of a narrative and more of an undeniable truth.

Offensive Performances by Opposing Defense

Era Quality of Opposing Defense Games Points per Game Yards per Play
Era Quality of Opposing Defense Games Points per Game Yards per Play
2012-2016 S&P+ Top 25 21 23.6 5.5
Others 43 36.8 6.5
2017-2018 S&P+ Top 25 6 17.0 5.2
Others 11 42.6 8.0
Points per Game don’t include defensive scores.

It isn’t exactly profound to point out that good defenses are going to be harder to score on, but the drop in points per game (25.6) when facing stouter competition is something else. Defenses have learned there aren’t a ton of layers to how this offense attacks them, and execution from the players themselves has been severely lacking at times. While Longo has been working with arguably more weapons and overall talent, he’s put up essentially a touchdown less than the 2012-16 teams managed against top-25 defenses.

What’s more subjective is how much outrage this underachievement on offense really deserves. Longo’s hiring was predicated on him being able to game plan with/under Freeze, but after that insane summer, he suddenly became the lone source of offensive creativity in the building — from that standpoint, he’s not in an enviable position.

Aside from that, because of the aforementioned poopy defense, the offense would have to do much more than any rational human could demand for Ole Miss to compete with the heavyweights. Elite defenses have done what they are supposed to do on a weekly basis, and as a result, we have to settle with just having a good offense most weeks, not a legendary one that can produce against anyone.

Regardless of the root causes, the Matt Luke era may be defined by his teams’ inability to take on the growing challenges they’ll inevitably face in this division. The talent deficit will only get worse after some key departures next offseason, which could mean some rough years ahead. The future surrounding this program is murky in just about every way, with the only point of clarity being that something has to change.