Previews 2019: Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Texas A&M

Jul 17, 2018; Atlanta, GA, USA; Mississippi Rebels head coach Matt Luke addresses the media during SEC football media day at the College Football Hall of Fame. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 17, 2018; Atlanta, GA, USA; Mississippi Rebels head coach Matt Luke addresses the media during SEC football media day at the College Football Hall of Fame. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

 

Rebels

Projected record: 2-10 (UA, Ark, AU, LSU, Mem, Cal, VU, UM, TAM, MSU); 0-8 and 7th SEC West
Returning offensive starters: 3 (RG, RT, RB)
Returning defensive starters: 7 (NT, LDE, ROLB, RILB, LCB, SS)
Returning specialists: 2 (PK, P)

Unit ratings
QB: Fr DL: Av
RB: Fr LB: Fr
WR: Pr DB: Pr
OL: Fr ST: Vg

Offense – what’s to like: You really have to look for things to like here, and it basically boils down to the right side of the offensive line and a young quarterback who looked competent in limited action at the end of the year. Guard Ben Brown and tackle Alex Givens are quality players. So, too, is new center Eli Johnson, but … well, we have a category called “Potential Pitfalls” below and we won’t spoil it for you.

Matt Corral, if he simply progresses, would help raise Ole Miss’ QB ranking above “Fair” pretty quickly. The issue is really lack of depth. Five of the six quarterbacks in spring camp were freshmen, including Grant Tisdale, who is listed as Corral’s backup. Corral has a gunslinger’s mentality and will be more dynamic than Jordan Ta’amu, whose skill set was exposed a bit over the regular season, even if he did throw for nearly 4,000 yards in Ole Miss’ forget-about-running-it offense.

Offense – potential pitfalls: Trying to whittle this down to just a few items is a chore. The aforementioned Alex Givens is coming off back surgery, so his early-season availability will be limited. The left side of the line is unsettled, and Ole Miss is going to have to rely on too many freshmen in the two-deep. The tight end position, which has been such a big part of the Rebel offense in recent years, needs an upgrade.

The skill positions, though, are where Ole Miss really needs an infusion. Senior Scottie Phillips and his 2018 backup, sophomore Isaiah Woullard, both return at running back, but they could quickly slide down to third and fourth on the depth chart behind two signees. Like Ta’amu at quarterback, Phillips put up some gaudy numbers (928 yards, 6.1 avg., 12 TD) but wasn’t impactful enough against better opposition. The real question mark is the entire wide receiver group, which was wiped out by graduation and the NFL draft. The leading returning receiver is Elijah Moore, who was a possession receiver out of the slot in 2018 and isn’t a game-changer. Ole Miss’ offense didn’t lack for points in 2018, and won’t this year, either, but the Rebels lost seven conference games and only scored 30 points or more in one of them. Now do it all again with only 3 returning starters.

Defense/special teams – what’s to like: The strongest unit on the team is the special teams, where kicker Luke Logan and punter Mac Brown return. Even then, there are questions about the kicking that we’ll get to later. We think the return game will be better with younger, simply because it can’t get much worse than 2018.

As for the rest of the defense, well … there is a lot of upperclassman experience in the front seven. There is a new, more seasoned and aggressive defensive coordinator in Mike MacIntyre on campus. Probably the best thing MacIntyre did was convince nose tackle Benito Jones not to enter the transfer portal. Ole Miss is expecting JUCO transfer Lakia Henry to lock down a starting linebacker position and stop the sieve that has been the Rebel rush defense in recent years.

Defense/special teams – potential pitfalls: Again, this category is too long. Ole Miss ranked in the 100s in all relevant major defensive categories, and then lost two starters in the secondary and several other key contributors. MacIntyre runs a fairly straightforward 3-4 defense that has forced several position changes, which almost always means a transition year for a defense. The linebacker corps is a bit of a mess but having three seniors coming back with starting experience ought to ease the blow somewhat.

The secondary, though, has got to get better. Players like Jalen Julius, Montrell Custis and Jaylon Jones have either been injured, failed to live up to expectations or both. At one time, fairly recently, the Rebel secondary was the most intimidating in the SEC, right up there with LSU and Alabama. It couldn’t get out of its own way in 2018. As for the special teams, the flip side of the praise we showered Ole Miss with above is that Brown needs to improve his long punting and Logan’s entire body of work last year came from 40 yards in, so who knows what the Rebels really have? But the biggest failure to overcome was in the punt return group and especially both coverage units. It was a middle-school fire drill all year long and Ole Miss should have been dead from embarrassment alone.

Final analysis: If Matt Luke hadn’t pulled a solid recruiting class out of his hat, we’d be talking about the long-term, impending hibernation of the Black Bear program. Instead, this looks like typical NCAA-fueled rebuilding, but with Matt Luke at the helm. He’s a favorite son in Oxford, but he is not a particularly impressive coach, which means he matches his team. Ole Miss had a lot of close-but-not-quite moments in 2018, but instead of the team taking a step up, it has taken the kind of step back that naturally comes with so much personnel loss. And that could mean 2019 gets ugly for Ole Miss.

READ MORE:  Mississippi State


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