Through the first six games of the season, Ole Miss is where everyone thought they would be. But the way the Rebels got to 5-1 is what has some worried about this team heading into the second half of the season.
It’s tough to give an offense that ranks fifth nationally and first in the SEC in scoring anything but an A, but the Rebels, despite their strong performances, have some issues they have to solve going forward. Chad Kelly has been terrific at quarterback and could potentially be considered the best in the SEC by season’s end. However, Kelly has made some interesting decisions with the football that could prove costly down the road. The Rebels still can’t run the ball consistently, but at this point, they are who they are until they recruit better at running back. The biggest issue is up front. Getting back star left tackle Laremy Tunsil will certainly strengthen the unit as a whole, but the jury is still out on how consistent Ole Miss can be guard to guard.
The Landshark defense was supposed to be something Ole Miss could lean on when times got tough, but they have yet to be the dominant unit we saw a year ago. Many wondered how replacing all-Americans Senquez Golson and Cody Prewitt would go, but the majority of the issues are at linebacker, where Ole Miss is relying on a bevy of new contributors. Throw in the losses of safety Tony Conner, linebacker C.J. Johnson, cornerback Tee Shepard, defensive tackle Issac Gross, and the issues are easier to understand. Still, Ole Miss has the talent to be dominant again, but it starts with linebacker play. If the Rebels can take away the quick passing game from their opponents, that will give Ole Miss’ ultra-talented defensive line time to rush the passer and set things up for its ball-hawking secondary.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C+
Gary Wunderlich has made 8 of 10 field goal attempts this season with one miss coming on a block because of a blown assignment up front, so the Memphis native has been pretty good this season. Punter Will Gleeson is averaging over 44 yards per punt. The Rebels’ coverage teams have been pretty good as well this season, but the problems come when Ole Miss is set to return. Defensive back Carlos Davis has had several scary moments fielding punts, and coach Hugh Freeze said this week that the Rebels are looking at different options there. Running back Jaylen Walton is sure-handed on kickoff returns, but there hasn’t been much room to operate.
Ole Miss was dealt a tough hand with Tunsil missing the first seven games of the year, and despite other injuries that have piled up on the Rebel offensive line, Freeze and company have managed to still be electric offensively. However, play calling in the red zone has left a lot to be desired, as Freeze has been adamant to run the ball near the goal line despite Ole Miss’ struggles on the interior. Freeze has noted they need to allow Kelly to throw a little more down there and give Ole Miss’ big receivers, namely Laquon Treadwell, chances in one-on-one situations. Defensively, the call to move Mike Hilton from safety to the husky, a hybrid linebacker/safety in the Rebels’ 4-2-5 defense, probably came a week too late, and Florida quarterback Will Grier made them pay. If Ole Miss can shore things up on defense, this team has a great shot to make a run in rest of the way.
Team MVP: Chad Kelly, Quarterback, Junior
There’s no denying Kelly has been the most important piece to Ole Miss’ early-season success. He’s a natural-born leader with a ton of arm talent that can make the Rebels a nightmare for any defense. Oh, and he’s on track to give Eli Manning’s single-season school records a run for their money.
Defensive MVP: Trae Elston, Safety, Senior
If anyone had any concern about Ole Miss’ secondary without Prewitt, Elston answered those questions very quickly. The defensive back has stepped up his game during his senior campaign, as he’s already totaled four interceptions and scored two touchdowns. This award could go to defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, but linebacker play has allowed quarterbacks to get rid of the ball early and take Nkemdiche out of plays.
Offensive MVP: Quincy Adeboyejo, Wide Receiver, Junior
This could go to a number of Ole Miss receivers, but Adeboyejo has really stepped up in his junior season. The 6-foot-3, 195-pounder has 18 receptions for 309 yards and five touchdowns. He’s also a deep ball weapon defenses have to account for because of Kelly’s arm strength.
Best Freshman: Javon Patterson, Offensive Guard, True Freshman
There haven’t been many good things to say about Ole Miss’ play on the offensive line, but Patterson has really impressed. The Rebels had to throw him into the fire early because of some injuries up front, and he’s consistently answered the call and proven he’s going to be a dominant force at Ole Miss for years to come.
Biggest Surprise: Evan Engram, Tight End, Junior
Where’s Engram been this season? That’s the biggest surprise for Ole Miss this fall. Engram entered the season with all kinds of preseason accolades, but through the first half of the year, he has just 10 receptions for 137 yards and no touchdowns. Defenses have certainly keyed on him, but he has to be more of a weapon in the Rebel offense.
Best play: Chad Kelly’s 66-yard touchdown pass to Quincy Adeboyejo against Alabama
It’s a play you’ve seen a million times by now, but I still can’t figure out how it happened. Kelly tipped a high snap into air, waited for it to come down and threw off his back foot in the direction of Treadwell, who was in one-on-one coverage. An Alabama defensive back knocked the ball out of Treadwell’s hands, it then batted off the Alabama player’s helmet and into the arms of Adeboyejo, who took it 66-yards to the house. The Rebels ended up winning the game 43-37.
Most likely to explode in second half: Laquon Treadwell, Wide Receiver, Junior
Treadwell admits he had to get comfortable on the field after coming back from a gruesome leg injury against Auburn last season. However, over the past couple of weeks, Treadwell has looked like himself again. He has 35 receptions for 510 yards and three touchdowns this year and should become even more of a focal point in the Rebels’ high-powered offense moving forward.
Most likely to turn pro early: Take your pick
This could be any of three guys who are expected to be sure-fire first round draft selections. Whether you pick Tunsil, Nkemdiche or Treadwell, you’re safe in assuming this is their last year in an Ole Miss uniform.
Projected Finish: 10-2, Sugar Bowl Bid
Tunsil’s presence immediately turns that Ole Miss offensive line from bad to average, and if the Rebels can get healthy on the interior, they could end up being good. That will give Kelly time to operate the offense, and you would think the defense is going to improve. The Rebels’ toughest games left on the schedule are home games against Texas A&M (Oct. 24) and LSU (Nov. 21). Ole Miss should split those games to end up 10-2 overall and 6-2 in the SEC. Will that be enough to win the SEC West? No one can predict that in this crazy football season.