Today we continue our series of opponent previews with the Ole Miss Rebels, Auburn’s eighth straight opponent and final one before the bye week at the end of October.
2017 was a very bizarre year for the Ole Miss Rebels. On July 20th of last year, news broke that Hugh Freeze was going to resign after some troubling allegations. Now, these were nearly all away from the football field, as the reasons given for the split were tied into phone calls that Freeze made to an escort service. It was a black eye for a man who’d touted his religious leanings all throughout his time in Oxford, and it made the last several weeks of the offseason a whirlwind of uncertainty for the Rebs.
Enter Matt Luke, co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, who’d been at Ole Miss as a player, then a graduate assistant, and finally an assistant coach and coordinator under Freeze. He was Ole Miss through and through.
In the interim year under Luke, the Rebels went 6-6, with major ups and downs. After a 2-0 start, Ole Miss lost three straight road games to Cal, Alabama, and Auburn, by a combined score of 137-42, but they battled to a 4-3 run during the last part of the season that was capped off by an Egg Bowl win at #16 Mississippi State on Thanksgiving. That win was punctuated by one of the finest displays of raunchy rivalry hate you’ll ever see.
However, in the offseason, Shea Patterson decided to leave town. He tore his PCL in the loss to LSU in October, at which point he led the SEC in passing yards, and now he’ll be Jim Harbaugh’s quarterback to play with up in Ann Arbor. Down the stretch of the season, Jordan Ta’amu filled in and actually compiled a better QB rating than Patterson did.
So, the team could’ve absolutely folded upon the Freeze news breaking, but they got a guy that knew how to motivate and was the perfect rah-rah coach for such a situation. They could’ve folded when Patterson went down, or after the 63-point defeat in Tuscaloosa, but they didn’t. Ole Miss may not be great this year, but with that offense, and one of the best receivers in the country, don’t sleep on Matt Luke and company.
We mentioned the guy that’ll be given the keys to the car already — Jordan Ta’amu. He’s a mobile dude (like Patterson was), and he’s going to have a ton of continuity around him to help keep Ole Miss’ offense on the torrid pace it was on last season. The Rebels led the SEC in passing and Ta’amu gets a running start into 2018 after finishing last year. He’s going to have basically the same receiving corps coming back to help him out and these guys are good.
A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf, and DaMarkus Lodge all return with a combined 25 touchdowns and just under 2,500 yards in catches from last season coming with them. Ta’amu’s not going to have the growing pains associated with most new starters, and he’ll also enjoy a pretty solid offensive line coming back to help. The starting O-line should have five fourth or fifth-year guys, led by Greg Little at left tackle. Ole Miss gave up five sacks in defeats at Cal and Alabama, but in their other losses, the protection was solid and allowed for a pretty solid day offensively.
Now, Ole Miss is going to run the ball, but it’ll be a change of pace type of thing. The Rebels ranked 103rd in the land in rushing yards per game last year with just 134 each time out, but they were right in the middle of the pack averaging 4.4 yards per carry. Gone is Jordan Wilkins, who picked up 6.5 yards each time, to go along with over 1,000 yards and 9 touchdowns in 2017. His production will need to be duplicated by D’Vaughn Pennamon and Eric Sweeney, who both saw limited time last year and will need to come out of the chute ready to play.
As much as the offense was explosive and excelled last year, the defense was at the opposite end of the spectrum. Both of the main metrics that one typically uses to quantify defensive performance (points per game and yards per game) were right down near the very bottom of the SEC rankings.
Ole Miss allowed 459.5 yards per game (116th in the country), which wasn’t just near the bottom of the SEC rankings, but near the bottom of Power 5 overall. Only four Power 5 schools were worse: Kansas, Oregon State, Arizona, and UCLA.
The Rebels were a little better in points allowed, giving up 34.6 ppg in 2017, which was about two points better than Arkansas, but still near the low end of the totem pole. To make matters worse, some of the more productive members of that defense are gone.
Breeland Speaks and Marquis Haynes depart, taking 14.5 sacks with them, and the absence of those two will be magnified by the hole created by the loss of Demarquis Gates, who led the Rebels in tackles in 2017. In the secondary, Ole Miss snagged just eight interceptions, with all of those coming by either C.J. Moore, Myles Hartsfield, or Javien Hamilton, and the good news is that those three all return. They just need to be able to do more with another year of experience under their belts.
There’s good news on the front line as well, with Benito Jones and Josiah Coatney returning to man the middle of the line, and they’ll hold their own in run defense. Ole Miss needs to find a way to get more pressure on the quarterback with most of their production in the sack game leaving, and they need to create some turnovers to end drives.
Gary Wunderlich is gone, taking a ton of points with him. Ole Miss will surely miss one of the steadier kickers in the SEC over the last few seasons, but there’s hope with Luke Logan coming in to replace him. Logan made all nine of his extra point attempts last year, as well as 2-3 field goal tries. Mac Brown should be the heir apparent at punter, but his work has been very limited, with just five kicks last year for an average of 42.2 yards per boot. Not bad, but a small sample size nonetheless.
MATCHUP vs AUBURN
Last year, it was Auburn’s run game with Kerryon Johnson and the efficient passing of Jarrett Stidham that paved the way for a blowout on the Plains. KJ rumbled for 227 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns, with Stidham tossing two more touchdowns to Ryan Davis and Darius Slayton. Ole Miss got plenty of yards (429 to be exact) and the Tiger defense had a little trouble adjusting at first to Shea Patterson as he drove down the field a couple times. Ole Miss’ offense slowed once it hit the red zone, and that’s where the Tigers buckled down, but the base is still there for success if you’re Matt Luke.
This will be Auburn’s eighth straight game to begin the season, with the bye week following the trip to Oxford. By that time, we assume that Gus Malzahn will have sorted out the running game, and we’ll have a go-to back in the fold. Stidham and the passing game should be humming by then as well, and so the offense will likely have its rhythm in full stride.
There’s no excuse for Auburn to look past this game into the bye week, as the schedule before it isn’t as daunting as it may be. The two weeks before we go to Oxford have us in Starkville and at home against Tennessee. Once we get through those, Ole Miss is the only thing standing in the way before a brutal November stretch. If Auburn can punctuate the first two months of the season with a nice road win in the SEC West, and head into November with one loss at most, we’ll be in for the same stakes we had at the same time in 2017.
Up next, we preview the Bye Week. No, just kidding. It’s A&M and new head coach Jimbo Fisher. Auburn will try to beat the Aggies on the Plains for the first time since Texas A&M joined the SEC.