Ole Miss preview: Rebels look for more toughness, but it hasn’t made them better

On paper, Ole Miss appeared to do everything right (or at least try) heading into the 2019 season. Coming off a 5-7 campaign in 2018, the Rebels reached out to one of the developers of the modern spread offense, Rich Rodriguez, to run the show on that side of the ball.

 

Defensively, Mike MacIntyre was brought in fresh off a seven-year run as Colorado’s head coach to help toughen up a unit that desperately needed to quit trying to be “landsharks” so hard they wound up smelling of dead fish.

But through four games of the 2019 season, the things many observers foretold for Ole Miss this year are coming true. The Rebels are 2-2, with halfhearted wins over a bad Arkansas team and an FCS school, Southeastern Louisiana, and two losses in its other two non-conference games, to decided non-powers Memphis and Cal.

Now, the Rebels’ starting quarterback is hurt, and the predicted struggles of an offense returning only three starters just keep coming and coming. To put it bluntly, this has looked like a bad team on the verge of getting worse.

Ole Miss’ source for optimism right now offensively is that true freshman John Rhys Plumlee, who wasn’t even on campus prior to August, came off the bench to replace the injured Matt Corral at quarterback and actually did very well. Whether he or the rest of his Rebel teammates can muster enough to challenge Alabama at home is another story.

OFFENSE

Any time Rich Rodriguez is involved, you know what you’re going to get: no-huddle spread-based offenses with a lot of quarterback movement. While Rodriguez was one of the progenitors of the system, his ability to stay on the cutting edge over the years has waned. Ole Miss currently ranks 74th in total offense, 58th in rushing offense and 81st in passing. Efficiency hasn’t been great, either, as scoring offense trails at 96th. Alabama’s multiple, pro-style passing spread currently ranks 9th nationally, 3rd in passing offense, 6th in scoring offense and 57th in rushing offense. While Alabama needs to get the ground game on track, overall, there is little in common between the two teams.

QUARTERBACKS
Matt Corral left the Cal game with a rib injury, but even before that, signs were pointing to a call to change quarterbacks. Corral’s season stats are OK but not great – less than 60% completion of passes, 7.4 yards per attempt, only 4 touchdowns in 4 games, a rating of 131.7 – but most importantly, he has been impotent on the ground. Rodriguez likes his quarterbacks to move, and Corral’s rushing stats – 41 carries for 91 yards, 2.3 avg., 1 TD – are on the extreme low end of what he’s looking for.

When true freshman John Rhys Plumlee came into the fourth quarter of the Cal game last week, he went 7-for-7 for 82 yards passing, but he also carried 3 times for 53 yards. It’s going to be a much different set of circumstances this week, no matter who starts – and Ole Miss is still kicking around the idea of starting a third quarterback, freshman Grant Tisdale – but it’s a near-certainty Alabama is going to see more than one QB under center for the Rebels.

Meanwhile, the Crimson Tide will start Tua Tagovailoa, who is already at 1,300 yards passing, 17 touchdowns and no interceptions. Advantage: Alabama

RUNNING BACKS
Jerrion Ealy was Ole Miss’ top-ranked recruit this past recruiting cycle, and he’s showing why. He’s averaging 6.1 yards per clip, but he still hasn’t taken over the starting job from journeyman Scottie Phillips, a senior. Class and inertia probably have a lot to do with it, but Alabama will take it, because Phillips – while not a bad running back – is not the guy you gameplan for if you’re Alabama. I

t’s just a matter of time, though, before Ole Miss makes the switch, because Ealy is a much better receiver as well. Phillips is averaging a pedestrian 4.3 yards per carry and has totaled 362 yards on the year. Snoop Conner might get some carries as well in this game.

Alabama’s Najee Harris continues to slowly progress, and is now knocking on the door of the 6-yards-per-carry club. His big-play ability has also been on full display. It’s not so clear what’s going on behind him. Brian Robinson Jr. continues to languish a bit as the backup, and Alabama has rotated Jerome Ford and Keilan Robinson, trying to find the right fit for the third back. Because Ole Miss has essentially insisted on setting its depth chart backwards from Alabama’s – with the better back coming off the bench – Alabama is likely to have more impact from its best player, Harris, because he figures to get more opportunities. If Ealy starts and gets the bulk of the work for Ole Miss, though, all bets are off. Advantage: Alabama

WIDE RECEIVERS
Only one Ole Miss receiver has more than 10 catches this year. Elijah Moore has caught 29 passes for 380 yards (13.1 avg.) and 3 touchdowns. Runner-up to Moore? Dontario Drummond and RB Jerrion Ealy, with 7 catches apiece. Demarcus Gregory, Braylon Sanders and Jonathan Mingo all have shown flashes of big talent, and all have healthy yards-per-catch averages. But they’re averaging around 1 catch per game each. Tight end Octavious Cooley has 6 catches on the year and has the build to be a force in run-blocking, so there’s that.

Like the QB comparison, Ole Miss can be as good as it wants to be and still not match up to the Crimson Tide, which has four receivers in double digits in terms of catches, with two of them sure-fire first-round draft picks next April and another that figures to go in the top half of the draft. The one weak point for Alabama has been at tight end, but Nick Saban and staff may have plugged that hole by moving offensive guard Kendall Randolph to tight end last week. Randolph’s limited duty produced much better blocking than Miller Forristall and Major Tennison had been able to provide.

Having said that, both Forristall and Tennison can catch, and even if both were to be relegated to full-time H-back duty (which they won’t), they’re still a tough matchup for a linebacker while running routes. Alabama will have to account for Moore’s presence here, but overall Ole Miss has the much tougher assignment when it comes to limiting receivers. Advantage: Alabama

OFFENSIVE LINE
Eli Johnson will start at center for Ole Miss, with Royce Newman and Ben Brown at the guards and Michael Howard and Alex Givens at the tackles. The issue here is one of inexperience, as the center and both left-side linemen are new starters. The Rebels have struggled so far, ranking 104th in tackles for loss allowed and 86th in sacks allowed despite the Rebels utilizing a lot of QB movement. This is not the Rebel lines of the past 5-10 years, for certain.

Alabama’s own line has struggled to consistently open running lanes, but statistically, the Crimson Tide is far superior with rankings of 49th in tackles for loss allowed and 16th in sacks allowed. The starting lineup should be the same as last week: Chris Owens at center, Landon Dickerson and Evan Neal at the guards, and Alex Leatherwood and Jedrick Wills at the tackles. Guard Deonte Brown returns from a suspension, but he added a lot of weight over the offseason and hasn’t taken it off yet.

There’s also the question of who he’d replace, as Neal has put together two good games back-to-back, and Dickerson’s leadership has made him a coaches’ favorite. Brown doesn’t play center, which is Alabama’s weakest position. For that matter, one of the competitions still worth watching for Bama is whether true freshman Darrian Dalcourt is going to overtake Owens at the center spot.

Ole Miss, despite having three new starters in 2019, probably still has a bit of an experience advantage over Alabama, but the Crimson Tide leads just about everywhere else. Advantage: Alabama

READ MORE:  Defense


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