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Ole Miss could very well lose out in 2018

A road trip to Vandy is perhaps the Rebels’ only hope.

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

From an outside perspective, Ole Miss’ 5-4 record isn’t much to fret about, especially for a program that’s suffered 2-10 finishes twice since 2007. Context is everything, though, and barring a miraculous turnaround, the once-reasonable hope for seven wins feels a lot more bullish nine weeks in.

Over time, expectations have settled to the point that defensive incompetence is now par for the course. Trying to consistently muster outrage over the defense’s performance has become exhausting, and it’s resulted in perhaps less than fair demands from the offense to make up for their inept counterpart.

Because of that severe imbalance, every skirmish against SEC competition has been an uphill battle from the opening whistle, and that includes last week’s game against a mediocre Gamecock team.

Saturday’s loss to South Carolina sums up the 2018 Ole Miss football experience.

Aside from the numbing feeling of losing a very winnable game, the Rebels’ most recent defeat added on to the theme of despair when facing a team with even a mildly decent defense.

The offense enjoyed its most efficient performance of the year in SEC play (53 percent success rate) aside from the win over Arkansas (63 percent), but Carolina’s bend-don’t-break approach meant they had to play mistake-free football deep in enemy territory to get on the scoreboard. Big scoring plays were cut off, and their longest touchdown came from 17 yards out.

While they generally moved the ball pretty damn well (nine of their 14 drives got inside the opposing 40-yard line), they didn’t maximize enough of those heavy-yardage possessions. The offense turned the ball over on a swing pass at the Cocks’ 24, and they had to settle for field goals inside the 15 on three separate occasions. Those blunders matter, but they shouldn’t have been as relevant as they were in the end.

Ole Miss still scored more points against Will Muschamp’s defense than any other team had managed through October of this season, and that arguably should have been enough to win. They dared a team that had been averaging 25 points per game in SEC play to score more than 44. What should have been a manageable task for the defense and special teams ended in abject failure, and it paints a brutal picture of the season as a whole.

Wesley McGriff’s group has allowed 31 points or more in every conference game so far this year, setting the bar pretty high for the offense in a league that prides itself on stingy defense. None of this bodes well for the Rebels’ final three games.

Ole Miss has no easy wins left to pick up in November.

Bill C.’s S&P+ gives Matt Luke’s team a 33 percent chance of beating each of Texas A&M and Mississippi State, and it’s real hard to argue that their chances should be any more optimistic in either of those.

While it’s very much a proof-of-concept kind of year for Jimbo Fisher’s Aggies, they’re much better than their 5-4 record, having nearly beaten a terrifying Clemson team in Week 2 and more recently experiencing some bad turnover luck against Auburn, who is suddenly good again. They’re due for something of a statement/bounce-back game, and boasting the 30th best defense by S&P+ should be enough to get the job done.

The Egg Bowl is in Oxford, and has a knack for getting weird, but leaning purely on football reasoning doesn’t yield a ton of hope. They won’t be going up against a true freshman quarterback this time, and State’s defense (fifth in S&P+) isn’t nearly as vulnerable to big plays as it was a year ago, jumping from 120th in IsoPPP (which measures explosiveness) to 28th in 2018.

Then there’s 4-5 Vanderbilt, who got trounced 35-57 in Oxford last season. The Rebels are given a 59 percent chance of winning here, and both the Commodores’ offense and defense are just outside the top 70 in S&P+. That’s certainly encouraging, but Ole Miss has already gifted some bad offenses with highlight-filled days, most notably against LSU (74th in offensive S&P+) and Arkansas (62nd). Similar to last week, they may need a near-perfect showing from the offense to have a chance.

Matt Luke’s lone SEC win so far in 2018 came against a Razorback team that’s been borderline dysfunctional in Chad Morris’ first year. If there’s not more balance after this season, Ole Miss could very well start filling that punching bag role in what’s sure to remain a murderous SEC West.