2013 Mizzou football preview: Ole Miss tries to sustain serious gains with young squad

Kelly Lambert-USA TODAY Sports

Ole Miss is going to be young and unstable, but let's just say that it would behoove Mizzou to get to six wins before the trip to Oxford.

From my 2013 SBN preview:

You don't rise 60 spots in the F/+ rankings without improvement on both sides of the ball, but while Ole Miss' defensive improvement was impressive (from 78th in Def. F/+ to 34th), the turnaround on offense was stunning. At least, it would have been stunning for teams that aren't used to such surges. The Rebels fell to a dreadful 110th in Off. F/+ in 2011 with a decent running game and, despite two solid receivers, a horror show for a passing game. But Freeze and co-coordinators Matt Luke and Dan Werner were able to engineer immediate, across-the-board improvement from 110th to 34th. Junior-college transfer Bo Wallace stepped in at quarterback, and while he had some decision-making issues at times (we'll get to that), he led a passing game that improved from 78th in Passing PPP+ (explosiveness) to 14th despite the loss of No. 2 receiver Nick Brassell to academic issues. Donte Moncrief was an outstanding No. 1 receiver as a sophomore, Ja-Mes Logan improved his catch rate from 49 percent to 74 percent and became a steady possession receiver, and former star recruit Vince Sanders became a dependable No. 3.

Combine explosive passing with efficient running, and you have yourself an offense. Jeff Scott is in no way an explosive back, but despite his diminutive size, he was able to grind out key yardage on standard downs (despite what was only a decent line) and set Wallace up with favorable second and third downs.

In last year's preview, I talked about how disappointing the Ole Miss defensive line had been in 2011, ranking worse than 80th in Adj. Line Yards and worse than 100th in Adj. Sack Rate despite the presence of what were, at one time, some pretty high-caliber recruits. That changed dramatically in 2012. Defensive coordinator Dave Wommack and line coach Chris Kiffin unlocked this unit's potential. The Rebels improved all the way to ninth in Adj. Line Yards and a more than respectable 26th in Adj. Sack Rate. With a deep, extremely active set of tackles, Ole MIss both stood up to run blocking and frequently sliced into the backfield. This was the line Ole Miss was supposed to have all along.

In 2013, depth could potentially be an issue for the line, but wow, is there potential here. C.J. Johnson, a former blue-chipper who really started to play like it in 2012, returns, as does sophomore tackle Isaac Gross. But the next two tackles on the list are gone, as is end Jason Jones. Ole Miss had six linemen with at least four tackles for loss last fall, and now four are gone.

But if you're going to have to lean on newcomers to fill in the depth chart, they might as well include the No. 1 high school recruit and the No. 2 junior college recruit according to Rivals.com. Junior tackle Lavon Hooks rang up 21 tackles for loss at NE Mississippi Community College, while incoming freshman Robert Nkemdiche was the most sought-after high school senior in the country. Unlike Treadwell, the newcomers will perhaps face a little bit more pressure to succeed early, but with Johnson and Gross leading the way, they could still get away with playing complementary roles for a while. Jadeveon Clowney had Melvin Ingram and Devin Taylor leading the way when he was a freshman. For Nkemdiche, expectations are going to be oppressively high (nobody should have their name associated with Clowney's this much before even playing a down of college ball), but he'll have a steady, if potentially thin, supporting cast helping him along.

If the line can achieve at a level similar to last year's -- there's certainly potential for it to do so, even if the newcomers make it something less than a given -- then the experienced back seven of the defense could once again wreak havoc. The linebackers are fun, fast, mostly light and active, and after a year of junior college, Nick Brassell rejoins the squad, this time (evidently) as a defensive back. In all, four of the top-five linebackers return, as does every defensive back who logged at least 13.0 tackles last year. Last year's improvement came with a rather inexperienced defense (outside of the line). Experience is no longer an issue.

Typically when a team improves so dramatically in one year, regression toward the mean is likely the next season. Teams also don't typically come out of nowhere to sign a top-ten class after languishing at a much lower level in the preceding years. But Ole Miss is in no way typical. We knew that before Hugh Freeze even came to town, and we definitely know it now. I'm pretty optimistic about this team, but one probably doesn't make much money betting on the Rebels, one way or another.

Ole Miss' biggest advantage

The Rebels' offense will have quite a few interesting pieces, but their biggest advantage in this game will probably come on defense, where they are fast, unique, and pretty confusing. Ole Miss has doubled down on speed over size, and while newcomers like end Robert Nkemdiche (supposedly up to 294 pounds ... as a freshman end) and JUCO tackle Lavon Hooks will make sure the defense isn't too small, speed will still be the primary feature here. And Ole Miss' defense, from a style perspective, will be unlike anything Mizzou has seen to date.

Mizzou's biggest advantage

The offense is still probably a year away from totally clicking. The passing game was explosive but only marginally efficient last year, and the running game was pretty efficient but inconsistent in the explosiveness department. The most interesting players (receiver Laquon Treadwell, running back Jaylen Walton) are freshmen and sophomores, and junior quarterback Bo Wallace is pretty unstable, capable of greatness on one play and boneheadedness the next. Mizzou probably won't have to score 45 points to win this game, in other words. There is extreme potential here, but the Tigers could make enough stops to keep this interesting.

Verdict

Ole Miss is probably a team you'd rather play in September than November, and I don't see a ton of reasons for getting too optimistic here. There's a chance that the Rebels still need another year to click and are hovering around .500 at this point in the season, but I still think Mizzou's odds aren't great in that scenario. Give me something like Ole Miss 33, Mizzou 17.

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