Coming into this season, the S&P+ analytics system favored Ole Miss against Texas Tech, Southern-Illinois, Kent State, Louisiana-Monroe and Arkansas—all opponents the Rebels ended up beating. For all of this team’s struggles against upper level SEC competition, Matt Luke’s group has won the games it’s supposed to.
That could change this weekend against a 4-3 South Carolina team. S&P+ gives the Rebels a 60 percent chance to win at home, while Vegas offered an opening line favoring Ole Miss by 2.5 points. Ole Miss averages nearly 50 offensive points per game against defenses outside the top 10 in S&P+ and South Carolina ranks 54th.
Given the Gamecocks’ defensive makeup, however, there’s reason to expect Will Muschamp’s group could ugly this game up enough to win.
*Ole Miss was marginally favored at home before its loss to Auburn, but that line was an overreaction to the Tigers’ offensive struggles.
Ole Miss relies heavily on big plays to put up points. South Carolina is very good at preventing them.
The Gamecocks’ defense is a uniquely frustrating one to face, in the sense that despite being mediocre overall, they’re good at enough things to punish you if can’t play hyper-efficient, mistake-free football. Ole Miss’ offense should expect to eat up yards on Saturday against the 112th-ranked group in terms of efficiency. Whether or not those yards convert to points is another question entirely, as the Gamecocks defense ranks 15th in explosiveness.
Georgia, Kentucky, and Texas A&M all had to win the efficiency battle by a pretty sizable margin to beat South Carolina, having below-average days in terms of IsoPPP (which measures explosiveness). Most recently, the Gamecocks gave up just one gain of 20 yards in a win over Tennessee, despite allowing a 52 percent success rate (the national average is 41 percent).
The Rebels’ home loss to Auburn was a stark reminder of just how dry the well can get when they can’t generate big plays. They got inside the Tigers’ 40-yard line seven times, but put up just 16 points, with their only touchdown coming in garbage time. Here’s just how big a chunk of the Rebels’ scores have come on big plays through eight games this season.
2018 Ole Miss Offense - Reliance on Big Plays
|% of Touchdowns on 20+ Yard Plays
|% of Touchdowns on 20+ Yard Plays
It’s not a bad thing that the offense scores from so far out as often as they do (it’s in fact very good), but against an effective bend-don’t-break defense like Carolina’s, they’ve gotta have answers when the field inevitably shrinks.
Longo’s offense has prevailed in this situation before...it just came against worse defenses.
When it comes to finding some sort of encouraging precedent for this kind of matchup, the win over Arkansas from a few weeks ago comes to mind, as does the road win against Kentucky last year. While neither of those teams excelled over the whole season at preventing explosive plays, they did a good enough job against Ole Miss to make the games closer than they should have been.
The Rebels needed a few huge gains to come back against the Razorbacks, but overall, just 42 percent of their total yardage came on gains of 20 or more yards (their season average is 52 percent). They needed a ridiculous success rate of 63 percent to win, and overcame a few blown opportunities in Arkansas territory. Similarly, in Lexington, just 35 percent of their yards came on big plays, and Jordan Ta’amu had to lead a 14-play drive to win in the final seconds.
If Ole Miss’ defense comes up with a few more stops than expected against an underwhelming Gamecock offense, this discussion becomes a bit less relevant. Knowing what we know, though, it’s difficult to imagine the Rebels having a shot without finishing most of their drives in the end zone.