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Ole Miss is an underdog against Vandy for good reason

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The Commodores may be good at just enough things to win Saturday.

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

Last October, then-favored Ole Miss covered a three-point spread against Vanderbilt to win 57-35, quashing any worries that a squirrelly Commodore team could make things interesting. That rout seemed less impressive by season’s end, when Derek Mason’s squad held a 5-7 record and rated 80th in S&P+.

These two teams haven’t changed much in a year’s time, at least not from a big-picture perspective. Derek Mason’s squad is 4-6 and 83rd in S&P+, although their last three losses have come by 10 or fewer points. Ole Miss carries nearly the exact same profile as a year ago, boasting an explosive offense whose output is countered by Wesley McGriff’s defense on a near-weekly basis.

So why then, with these teams being largely unchanged a year after an Ole Miss blowout, are the Commodores favored by 2.5 points? Sure, this year’s game moves to Nashville, but no one’s going to mistake Vanderbilt Stadium as a tough place to play. Rather, two major statistical mismatches explain why Vandy should be favored.

Ole Miss can’t finish drives and Vandy doesn’t give up big plays.

A common theme during Rebels’ recent skid has been an inability to finish drives deep in enemy territory. Ole Miss averaged just 3.5 points per scoring opportunity during its last three losses, a full point below the national average of 4.5. Against a stout but vulnerable A&M defense, Ole Miss’ last four trips inside the 40-yard line ended with a fumble, a missed field goal, a made field goal and a turnover on downs.

Struggling when the field shrinks isn’t unique to Ole Miss, but they’ve had a particularly hard time producing in these situations. Over their three-game losing streak, they’ve enjoyed a success rate of 50 percent in the open field (between their own 10-yard line and the opponent’s 30). That number drops to 33 percent when you look at plays inside the opponents’ 30.

If the Rebels can’t capitalize when they get near the end zone, they’ll have to rely on big plays to score from further out. While Vandy’s defense is overall unimpressive (74th in S&P+), they’ve improved from 120th a year ago to 20th in IsoPPP (which measures explosiveness), most recently holding Missouri’s Drew Lock to just 11 yards per completion. Translation: they don’t give up many big plays.

Ole Miss is probably going to move the ball just fine against a bend-don’t-break Commodore defense—over the last three games, they’ve gotten inside the opponent’s 40-yard line on 22 of 38 drives. But they’ve got to maximize those scoring opportunities to have a chance here, given what little help they’ll get from their defense.

Vandy’s offense is explosive (yes, really) and Ole Miss’ defense is, well, terrible.

To posit that McGriff’s defense is going to have hard time getting stops against an SEC school isn’t going out on a limb. They’ve already made a few objectively bad offenses (hello, LSU and Arkansas) look like world-beaters, and they don’t match up great against a Vanderbilt offense that’s looking less milquetoast than most years.

The Commodores rank 14th in IsoPPP, and it’s got more to do with running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn (7.5 yards per carry) than anyone else, including QB Kyle Shurmur. When Vaughn has made it to the second level this season (which he does a lot), he’s averaged 10 highlight yards per opportunity, leading all starting SEC backs.

That’s opened up some opportunities (to a degree) for Shurmur, whose yards per attempt have jumped from 6.9 to 7.6 when throwing on first down. It’s an underwhelming stat, but Ole Miss will most definitely load the box in obvious run situations, opening themselves up to getting burned on the back end.

Through three quarters of the A&M game, Ole Miss held Kellen Mond and the Aggies to 21 points despite giving up 373 yards, thanks in large part to turnovers. It was encouraging to see the secondary make finally make plays against a real team, but at this point, there’s a large enough sample size to say it’s not replicable on a weekly basis. On possessions that didn’t end in a turnover, SEC opponents have averaged 3.5 points per drive against Ole Miss (national average is 2.4). If Vanderbilt takes care of the ball, they should put up enough points to take a good amount of pressure off their already-capable defense.