Column: Four weeks in, still nothing is certain about the Ole Miss football team

Posted on Sep 26 2018 - 5:50am by Griffin Neal

With a record of 3-1 (0-1 SEC), the Ole Miss football team is stuck at a perplexing juncture in its 2018 campaign. After four games, the Rebels have played eight good quarters of football and eight that represent some of the lowest depths the football program has reached since the Ed Orgeron era. Yet they’re 3-1, boast one of the top-scoring offenses in the nation and are less-than-two-touchdown underdogs for their Saturday night kickoff against No. 5 LSU.

The general malaise surrounding the program is interesting but justified. After Ole Miss opened its season with a 20-point victory against Texas Tech, spirits soared. The offense hit on all cylinders, and Wesley McGriff’s defense looked respectable against Kliff Kingsbury’s high-powered air raid attack. But then the first half against Southern Illinois happened. And the 62-7 home loss to Alabama happened. And the 7-7 first-half draw against Kent State happened.

This Ole Miss team is genuinely unpredictable. It isn’t absurd to suggest that the Rebels could drive down to Baton Rouge and hang 45 points and 600 yards on LSU’s defense, but it also wouldn’t be surprising if they scored 13 and coughed the ball up four times. The variance with this team is astonishing and is the greatest contributing factor to the melancholy that engulfs most of the Rebels’ fan base.

Before the year began, nearly all college football outlets — Sporting News, Bleacher Report, SEC Country and Athlon Sports — predicted Ole Miss to finish sixth or seventh in the SEC West. And with a third of the season complete, there is certainly a possibility that these predictions come true. However, this Ole Miss team has a legitimate shot to finish with eight wins — the program’s highest total since 2015. Let’s look at the Rebels’ remaining schedule.

To more effectively examine the next eight games, we’ll group them into three categories: Locks, Losses and Toss-Ups.

Locks: Louisiana-Monroe, Arkansas

The big reason that the San Antonio Spurs won 50 or more games per year for 18 straight years (1999-2017) was that they cleaned up against inferior competition. They might have lost high-profile, nationally televised games, but they rarely lost to sub-.500 teams. Since 2012, Ole Miss has performed similarly. ULM doesn’t have the athletes to compete with Ole Miss, and Arkansas is arguably the worst Power Five football program in the country. Ole Miss will wallop both of these schools.

Losses: LSU, Auburn

Though neither of these teams has the offensive strength that Ole Miss does, these gaps aren’t large enough to make up for the Rebel defense. Playing in Baton Rouge is hard enough, but kicking off at 8:15 p.m. in Death Valley is a task that should make grown men tremble. And though Auburn is coming off a loss to LSU, Auburn’s No. 22 defense and preseason Heisman candidate Jarrett Stidham will prove to be too much for Ole Miss. Unless a major injury occurs or the stars align for an improbable upset, the Rebels will drop both of these games.

Ole Miss receiver Braylon Sanders picks up a first down inside the red zone against LSU during the 2017 season. File photo by Billy Schuerman

Toss-Ups: Texas A&M, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State

Since 2016, Ole Miss is just 5-12 in SEC play, including an SEC home record of 2-7. The Rebels will face Texas A&M and Vanderbilt on the road and will host South Carolina and Mississippi State at Vaught-Hemingway. These four games will determine the trajectory of the program and whether or not a respectable final win tally is in tow.

Since 2012, Ole Miss has evenly split six contests with Texas A&M and has won 4 of 6 against both Vanderbilt and Mississippi State. Ole Miss hasn’t faced South Carolina since the 2009 upset of the then No. 4 Rebels, 16-10.

Realistically, Ole Miss will likely split these four games. Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond and Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald are two of the better dual-threat passers in the nation and should pose serious issues for Ole Miss’ 120th-ranked defense. But the exception to this prediction is the Egg Bowl. Rivalry games are largely unpredictable, but they typically favor the team with the least to lose. With no bowl game in its future and a potential shot at an eight-win season, give me Ole Miss. The Rebels will go 3-1 in these contests.