Opponent: Ole Miss Rebels
Date: November 17
All-time series record: Ole Miss leads, 51-39-2
Last meeting: October 14, 2017, in Oxford. Ole Miss won, 57-35.
Last year’s record: 6-6, 42nd in S&P+
Head Coach: Matt Luke (6-6, 2nd year)
Returning starters: 15 (8 offense/7 defense)
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: Ole Miss was hit with major NCAA sanctions last November. The NCAA extended the Rebels’ self-imposed postseason ban by a year, meaning the Rebels won’t be bowling in 2018, and tacked on a scholarship reduction (13 over four years) to the 11 over four years that Ole Miss self-imposed.
And then the NCAA let the transfers roam free. Existing NCAA rules allowed any player who would be a senior on this year’s team to transfer without sitting out a year, but the NCAA decided to allow some additional underclassmen to transfer without penalty as well.
With that said, the damage could have been a lot worse than it was. Ole Miss did lose Shea Patterson, a former five-star recruit who started the first seven games of last season at quarterback, and they also lose Van Jefferson, who transferred to Florida after being the team’s fourth-leading receiver last year. But other than that, most of the team’s starters stuck around; in fact, 15 are returning. Ole Miss did lose some depth to transfer — which, well, could be a factor in Week 12 when they go to Vanderbilt — but the top-level talent is comparable to what they’ve had the last couple of years. Jordan Ta’amu did fine in relief of Patterson late in the season, and he returns his top three receivers from last year in A.J. Brown, DaMarkus Lodge, and D.K. Metcalf. RB Jordan Wilkins averaged a cool 6.5 yards per carry last year, and he’s back, too.
The defense is a different matter. Never a strong suit, last year’s defense allowed 39.5 ppg in SEC play and has to replace ends Marquis Haynes and Breeland Speaks, who combined for 14.5 sacks, as well as the team’s leading tackler, starting linebacker DeMarquis Gates. Ole Miss does return most of last year’s defensive backfield, but the defensive front seven is an area where the scholarship reductions might show an immediate effect — and remember, this is a unit that allowed opponents to average 5.4 yards per carry last year.
The timing of this game is a mixed bag. A later date in the season could mean that Ole Miss’s depth chart has taken a few blows; on the other hand, that applies equally to Vanderbilt, and in the second to last game of the season all bets are off if the season is going particularly poorly. This could end up being a surprise win at home (a la 2016), or Vanderbilt could get run off the field (like, well, 2017.)