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Vanderbilt Football 2021 Opponent Preview: Ole Miss

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The Rebels have a high-powered offense. The defense? Well, about that...

NCAA Football: Outback Bowl-Mississippi vs Indiana Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Opponent: Ole Miss Rebels

Date: November 20, 2021

All-time series record: Ole Miss leads, 51-40-2

Last meeting: October 31, 2020; Ole Miss won, 54-21

Last season: 5-5, 36th in SP+

Head coach: Lane Kiffin (second year, 5-5; 10th year overall, 67-39)

The energy around the Ole Miss football program is 180 degrees different from where it was at the end of the 2019 season.

Matt Luke got fired at the tail end of a 4-8 campaign, in which the wins came against awful Arkansas and Vanderbilt teams, as well as nonconference games against Southeastern Louisiana and New Mexico State. Sure, the Rebels were competitive, with five of the eight losses coming by one score — but nobody seemed to have much confidence in the direction of the Rebel program.

Enter Lane Kiffin. The former Tennessee/USC/Florida Atlantic coach took the job shortly after FAU won its second Conference USA title in three years, and promptly got the offense working. In Luke’s final season, Matt Corral split time with true freshman John Rhys Plumlee; Kiffin decided to stop playing around with the two-quarterback system and made Corral the full-time starter, with excellent results. Ole Miss jumped from 82nd to 14th in points per game, and that was even with an SEC-only schedule — in other words, the numbers weren’t inflated by running up the score on some bad non-conference teams. Corral averaged 10.2 yards per pass attempt in 2020, and the Rebels spent most of the season scoring at will.

The defense was a different story. A decent unit in Matt Luke’s final season, the Rebels finished 2020 ranked 118th (of 128 FBS teams) in defensive points per game. Sure, some of that was the offenses they were facing — Florida, Alabama, and LSU all scored at least 50 on Ole Miss — but then, the unit also gave up 41 to Kentucky (granted, in overtime) and 42 to South Carolina. Even an otherwise-hapless Vanderbilt offense scored 21 on Ole Miss.

Still, if you’re going to be mediocre, at least be mediocre in a fun way, right? The offense should be just as good in 2021; how far Ole Miss will go depends entirely on whether the defense can stop anyone.

Offense

In Corral, Ole Miss quite likely has the best quarterback in the SEC. Last year, five SEC quarterbacks averaged at least 8.5 adjusted passing yards per attempt, and then there was a big gap between those five and Missouri’s Connor Bazelak at 6.9. Corral is the only one of the five returning in 2021 (the others: Alabama’s Mac Jones, Florida’s Kyle Trask, Arkansas’s Feleipe Franks, and Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond. Note, though, that Georgia’s J.T. Daniels would have ranked ahead of all but Jones, but didn’t have enough passing attempts to qualify.) And Corral is even something of a threat in the run game, averaging 4.5 yards on 112 attempts.

Most of the offense is returning as well, though notable in their absence are Corral’s two favorite targets: wide receiver Elijah Moore (a second-round pick of the New York Jets) and tight end Kenny Yeboah. Still, even with those two gone, Corral should have no shortage of weapons at his disposal: Jonathan Mingo (27-379-3) and Dontario Drummond (25-417-7) are returning starters at receiver; fifth-year senior Braylon Sanders (15-376-4) averaged a ludicrous 25.1 yards per reception; and running backs Jerrion Ealy (147-745-9 rushing, 15-155-1 receiving) and Henry Parrish Jr. (56-263-2 rushing, 7-59-0 receiving) are also threats in the passing game. Snoop Conner (93-421-8) is more of a “traditional” running back.

The offensive line wasn’t anything special in 2020, but that might have just been a function of the unit starting two redshirt freshmen and a true sophomore. The good news is that all three return, along with starting center Ben Brown, so this unit could be improved if the Rebels can find a replacement for two-year starter Royce Newman at right tackle.

In other words, Ole Miss is going to score early and often in 2021.

Defense

The good news: the losses off this unit are minimal. Ole Miss loses linebacker Jacquez Jones and lineman Ryder Anderson and... well, that’s about it.

The bad news: this is a unit that gave up 38.3 ppg in 2020. Is returning basically everyone a good thing? The short version of what happened to the Ole Miss defense is that Hugh Freeze basically ignored that side of the ball for a few years and then the Rebels got hit with NCAA sanctions. It took a few years for the sanctions to have their full effect (the short version of how it works is that the program gets hit with rolling scholarship losses, which means that current players are allowed to cycle out and then the program is limited in its ability to recruit replacements.) It all fell apart in 2020. But really, Ole Miss’s defense has been a disaster area since Robert Nkemdiche left for the NFL. Ole Miss’s rankings in defensive points per game since 2015: 100th, 110th, 114th, 59th, 118th.

In other words: is this really going to get fixed, or is the offense going to have to outscore opponents again?

It’s hard to point to anything the Rebels’ defense did well in 2020. Ole Miss’s defense ranked 13th in the SEC in both passing yards allowed per game and rushing yards per attempt. And unlike LSU — a much-maligned defense itself, which allowed more passing yards than Ole Miss — the Rebels didn’t force turnovers, either.

Of course, the defense was kind of a revolving door — maybe due to injuries, or maybe just trying to find something that would work. Seven different players started on the three-man defensive line; six different players started in the three-man linebacking corps. Just a single player on the entire defense — cornerback Keidron Smith — started all ten games.

It’s hard to identify potential stars on the Ole Miss defense; junior safety AJ Finley (3 INT, 7 PD in 2020) looks like a keeper, and the Rebels looked for reinforcements both from the JUCO ranks (defensive linemen Isaiah Iton and Jamond Gordon) and in the former of four-year transfers (6’7”, 265-pound defensive end Tavius Robinson from Guelph in Canada, and linebacker Chance Campbell from Maryland.) And they’ll be helped by an inordinate number of guys opting to take advantage of the free year from the NCAA (Lakia Henry, Sam Williams, among others.) And this unit only needs to be competent when it’s paired with that offense.

Special Teams

Punter Mac Brown returns for a sixth year in Oxford after leading the SEC in punting average in 2020; he probably won’t be used much (with only 27 punts last season.) Longtime kicker Luke Logan is gone, and the most likely replacement is scholarship freshman Caden Costa, who was ranked #7 in the 247 Sports composite.

Jerrion Ealy — probably the team’s best overall athlete — is a difference-maker in the return game and has a kick return touchdown in each of the past two seasons.

Schedule

  • September 6 vs. Louisville (Atlanta, GA) 7:00 PM/ESPN
  • September 11 vs. Austin Peay 6:30 PM/SEC Network+
  • September 18 vs. Tulane 7:00 PM/ESPN2
  • October 2 at Alabama
  • October 9 vs. Arkansas
  • October 16 at Tennessee
  • October 23 vs. LSU
  • October 30 at Auburn
  • November 6 vs. Liberty
  • November 13 vs. Texas A&M
  • November 20 vs. Vanderbilt
  • November 25 at Mississippi State 6:30 PM/ESPN

Ole Miss’s non-conference schedule is favorable; all four games are winnable, though the Liberty game in November (I won’t mention who Liberty’s coach is I won’t mention who Liberty’s coach is) could be tricky. But I’d bet on the Rebels winning at least three games outside of the SEC, and probably all four.

That leaves the SEC schedule. Depending on your opinion of Texas A&M, six or seven of the eight games are winnable; I’m not sold enough on LSU being improved to assume that they’ll go into Oxford and win. But aside from home games against Arkansas and Vanderbilt, there aren’t too many obvious wins on the schedule, either. Depending on how much the defense is improved, Ole Miss could finish anywhere between second and sixth in the West and nothing would surprise me. The over/under is 7.5 wins and the value is on the over, because if you assume three non-conference wins plus Arkansas and Vanderbilt, plus a loss to Alabama, going 3-3 in the remaining games would be 8-4.

Recent series vs. Vanderbilt

For a while, Vanderbilt had the Rebels’ number. From 2005-12, spanning the Ed Orgeron and Houston Nutt eras plus Hugh Freeze’s first year, Vanderbilt took six of eight in the annual rivalry game. There were some bad Ole Miss teams in there; there was also a 9-4 Cotton Bowl team that lost to Vanderbilt in Oxford in 2008. Hell, even Robbie Caldwell beat Ole Miss.

Since 2012, Vanderbilt has only beaten the Rebels twice — both times in Nashville. Vanderbilt’s last three trips to Oxford have ended with the Commodores losing 27-16 (fine), 57-35 (gross), and 31-6 (ewwww), and after that last one I finally agreed with many of you that Derek Mason needed to go. It was that bad.

Outlook

To sum up Ole Miss in a single sentence: the offense is going to score a lot of points, and how far the Rebels can go will depend on whether the defense is merely mediocre or the raging tire fire that it was in 2020 (and, really, most of the last five years.)

Again, I don’t have any doubt that Ole Miss’s offense is going to be very good — at least as good as it was in 2020, and possibly even better than that. That means that the worst-case scenario here is probably 7-5 or so, because a few teams on the schedule aren’t going to be capable of keeping up with the offense even if the defense is once again bleeding points. Getting beyond that, though, will require a defense that’s capable of making stops more than it did in 2020 — after all, even with that offense in 2020, Ole Miss still went 5-5 with the four SEC wins coming against Kentucky, Vanderbilt, South Carolina, and Mississippi State. They did manage to beat Indiana in the Outback Bowl; that was also the only game last season in which the opposition scored less than 21 points.

The thing is, some people that I trust think that Ole Miss’s defense will be better in 2021, and that unit is at least dotted with former four-stars and super seniors. So, maybe? It doesn’t have to be great when paired with this offense, and if it’s good enough, 10-2 is on the table. I haven’t reviewed the West as thoroughly as the East (because, ya know, only two of them are on the schedule), but Ole Miss feels like it will fight Auburn and LSU for third in the West. And they’d probably take that.