It comes as little to no surprise that Ole Miss’ season opener against Texas Tech is already being characterized by some as a guaranteed shootout.
It’s essentially what we were hoping last year’s trip to Berkeley would be, and the Rebels have both the firepower and experience to make this a high-scoring affair. Tech’s recent history would suggest they’re more than capable of keeping up, too. Since taking over the program in 2013, Kliff Kingsbury’s air raid offense has ranked in the top 25 in S&P+ every season, peaking in 2015 and 2016 with gunslinger Patrick Mahomes.
The culture and infrastructure are there to make this another potent unit, but for reasons that have nothing to do with Ole Miss’ defense, they may not be ready to produce immediately.
The Red Raiders’ offense ranks 127th in Bill Connelly’s returning production rankings, as just about every major contributor (not including the O-line) from 2017 is gone. That’s great news for a Rebel defense that’s eager to show any signs of improvement.
Texas Tech will have a new starting quarterback (again).
As of Thursday morning, the most important spot on the roster is still up in the air. Most signs point to McLane Carter, a JUCO transfer who was the 54th best pro-style QB out of high school. He hasn’t had as many “wow” moments in camp as dual-threat Jett Duffey (great name), but has separated himself by taking care of the ball.
To not know who’s running the offense days before kickoff is less than ideal, but there is precedent for this kind of situation in Lubbock.
Nic Shimonek was also lightly recruited and had big shoes to fill after the departure of Mahomes to the NFL. He threw for 33 touchdowns and nearly 4,000 yards last season, and the Red Raiders finished 25th in offensive S&P+.
This is a quarterback-friendly offense, and inexperience under center may not matter against this Rebel defense. Whoever does get the nod won’t be the only fresh face in this offense, though.
Tech also has to replace its receiving and rushing leaders from last year.
Following the departures of four of their top five receivers, Texas Tech returns just 20 percent of last season’s receiving yards (Ole Miss returns 80). That, coupled with uncertainty at QB, could lead to some growing pains for the air attack.
Bill C. made the valuable point in his preview that instant production is a common occurrence in Kingsbury’s system. Still, continuity in the passing game is important to any offense’s success, and they have close to none. They may not be ready to deal maximum damage through the air in Week 1.
Filling the void of departed running back Justin Stockton is less of a concern, both because it’s an easier position to replace and the assumption that Ole Miss’ run defense will remain at least moderately assy. The Landsharks finished 100th in rushing IsoPPP (which measures the magnitude of successful plays) in 2017, giving up 200 or more rushing yards eight different Saturdays.
Whether or not this really matters depends on the Rebel offense.
Because coordinator David Gibbs is bringing back the majority of last year’s group, Tech’s defense is projected to break into the top 40 in S&P+. That could be a stretch, but they still have the makings of a frustrating bend-don’t-break opponent.
If that’s the case, the big plays may not always be there for Rebel offensive coordinator Phil Longo, and the offense could experience a drought at some point. Even if it’s a brief one, that’s going to put a lot more pressure on what should remain a shaky Rebel defense that can’t be relied on to hunker down for consecutive possessions.
The lack of experience that Kingsbury will be forced to deploy on offense is relevant, but it remains to be seen just how much. Regardless, this is a solid litmus test for Matt Luke’s squad, and we’ll have a much better idea of their ceiling when it’s all said and done.