College football countdown: Will Ole Miss make the Playoff?
Note: Over the next two weeks leading into the first full slate of college football games, we will take a look at 14 of the top teams heading into 2016 and analyze their chances at making the College Football Playoff. We continue this series with Ole Miss, a team that finished with a 10-3 record and was recently ranked12th by the USA Today Coaches’ Poll.
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Jack Freifelder: All right, let's talk some Ole Miss football, Janie.
The Rebels come off a season that might leave some fans feeling a bit unfulfilled. Sure, a trip to the Sugar Bowl and a prompt thumping of then No. 16 Oklahoma State would be enough for some, but others are left wondering what could have been.
If head coach Hugh Freeze's team is going to work its way into the CFB Playoff, a few things are a must.
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(2) The defense must improve its standing both in the SEC and throughout college football.
But to be fair, this is a team that made its mark in 2015 by scoring the football. 53rd in total defense and 36th in points allowed per game just won't cut it if this team is going to be a College Football Playoff contender.
Janie Harris: I totally agree with you on that Jack, and that is why I believe that the Rebels just aren’t going to make it this year.
Kelly, who recovered from hernia surgery not that long ago, would have to be functioning at 100 percent all season long. But, his performance also depends on how Ole Miss’s offensive line executes its role. With three starters gone, the O-line looks as if it will have a few gaps. Fresh talent is coming in to fill the gap, but asking true freshman Greg Little to start from day one and perform as well as experienced collegiate athletes may be too much.
Also, like you mentioned, there are holes in the receiver positions. To try to combat that, Ole Miss could attempt to run the ball more, but the team has never really had a strong run game. Plus, that brings us back into the issue of how well the offensive line will be doing this year.
Will the offense be able to perform well enough to allow Ole Miss to contend for the Playoff? It all rest on the large shoulders of the offensive line.
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The guy to pinpoint in the bunch is senior right tackle Robert Conyers. He will be the Rebels' resident graybeard in 2016, so a lot of the leadership duties will fall to him. He is also slated as the backup center if the team decides to make a change.
But quarterbacks and offensive lines work in tandem.
Rest assured, Chad Kelly and head coach Hugh Freeze know that one of the glaring weaknesses of this team is along the offensive line. This is where Kelly will be instrumental, not only in directing traffic at the line of scrimmage, but also in making the decision to take off and pick up yards on his own — or simply throwing the ball away.
A traditional running game has not been the feature for Ole Miss in recent years, no arguments here, but the need to replace the output from Jaylen Walton (142 carries, 730 yards, 5 TDs) will likely fall to senior Akeem Judd and junior Jordan Wilkins.
Nonetheless, Kelly has also shown a knack for escaping and making some plays with his feet. I'm not a doctor so I won't make a guess as to the true health of QB Chad Kelly, but I can't deny the severity of a hernia surgery and its effect on recovery time.
Freeze can make the transition back from injury a bit easier with clever scheming and play-calling. Keep in mind, Laquon Treadwell threw the ball a few times last year (albeit, a meager sample size, 3-3, 134 yards, 1 TD), so the coaching staff has gotten a bit creative when presented with an opportunity.
These ideas are not necessarily a panacea for all of Ole Miss' ills, but I just don't think the offensive line is the biggest issue facing a team that gave up 30+ points on six occasions in the 2015-16 season. I know it's cliche, but sometimes your defense can be the best way to counteract hiccups on offense.
JH: Going off of your argument for the defense, it looks to be another lackluster year for this section of the team. Ole Miss didn’t have a dominating defense last year, and they probably won’t have one this year either.
While the team has a few solid returners, it will need to show some major improvements in order to fill in the offense’s gaps. Ole Miss faces what could be considered one of the toughest schedule in college football this year, and I’m not sure this defense can stand up to these other powerhouse teams to secure a playoff position.
First, the defense has to stop FSU’s Dalvin Cook, which isn’t impossible but is highly unlikely for a defense of smaller men. Yes, they are fast and athletic, but they may not have the ability to be rock solid against Cook.
Then just a few weeks later, the Rebels face Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide. Even the most solid defenses fall to Bama’s pro-style offense, and its defense is just as strong, if not stronger. The offense probably won’t be able to achieve much in this game, and the defense is likely to crumble here.
But the Rebels’ fearsome opponents continue. They face LSU in Tiger Stadium and will have to stop Leonard Fournette from running the ball, which isn’t an easy task.
Overall, with a defense that would have to perform more efficiently than it has in the past from the first game on, it looks like Ole Miss might have a decent year but not quite a perfect one.
JF: Robert Nkemdiche's departure for the NFL leaves a big hole up front, but there are reasons for optimism coming out of camp.
Players like Marquise Haynes and Fadol Brown will return and backup tackles DJ Jones and Breeland Speaks had their moments as well.
Jones, who appears to be the de facto starter at nose tackle for defensive coordinator Dave Wommack, had four sacks last year while appearing in all 13 games. And Haynes tied a school record with 10 sacks last season (17.5 sacks over the last two years), a tally good enough to put him in the Top 25 nationwide.
Despite the defensive struggles points-wise, the team actually managed to force a number of turnovers last year (23 in total: 15 picks, 8 fumbles) and scored four defensive touchdowns (tied with Alabama for the most among Power Five conference teams).
I admit, the turnover margin leaves a lot to be desired (even on the season), but this is an opportunistic defense that can make plays. Senior Tony Bridges tallied three picks last year and took one back for six against Mississippi State.
No promises that the likes of Cook and Fournette don't go off for a 200+ yard day, but don't sleep on a secondary that returns a good deal of experience (even if there were some nightmarish performances mixed in there).
And on the scheduling note, no doubt this would be a tough slog for any squad. But Ole Miss fared quite well against ranked opponents last year, including road wins against Alabama, Texas A&M, Mississippi State, LSU and a bowl victory over Oklahoma State.
The games that proved to pitfalls were against lesser opponents. Losses to Memphis and Arkansas were tough pills to swallow. And who knows where the Rebels season might have gone if they would have beaten Florida early.
JH: But, I think that is what the issue with them getting to the playoffs could really be. With the other teams in the running for the playoffs, Ole Miss cannot afford to lose bigger or smaller games. It’s in both the hyped-up opponents and the not-so-hyped up opponents that Ole Miss has to perform exceptionally against. From what I can tell, it may take too many key teams to fall before Ole Miss is able to secure a playoff position this year, especially if they lose a game or two.
Overall, I don’t think the Rebels will do poorly. I just can’t see them making it all the way.
JF: I guess I'd have to agree with you there. This is a team with CFP potential, but plenty of other teams in the nation would be happy to punch their ticket to that dance. A repeat of last year's 10-3 performance won't cut it and I'm not sure that Ole Miss can muster a much better performance with this year's talent. That opener against Florida State is sure to be a good measuring stick though.