We had a chance to sit down with Bob Lynch, managing editor over at Red Cup Rebellion (SBN's Ole Miss affiliate), to get some questions answered in preparation for Monday's game. I will link to our responses once they've been posted. Enjoy!
FTRS: Offensively, Ole Miss would appear to be pretty balanced with just over 3,400 passing yards and over 2,200 rushing yards. However, I get the impression that the most popular way for the Rebels to win is through Bo Wallace in the passing game. When Ole Miss is really humming offensively, what are they doing well? Mostly passing, mostly rushing, or a balanced attack?
RCR: When this offense is at its best, it's in an up-tempo system where the team picks up yards in bunches on inside read runs and short, quick passes. A lot of what Hugh Freeze wants to do is exploit mismatches in the passing attack and create open space in the middle of the field for rushers. At its best, it's a balanced attack, with Bo Wallace running a read option offense to set up quick passes to LaQuon Treadwell and Ja-Mes Logan (who won't be academically eligible for the bowl game, by the way). Ideally, that should set up deeper routes for Evan Engram and Donte Moncrief, particularly out of play action.
Unfortunately, the offense hasn't really clicked that well since October or so. As with any offensive system, offensive line play is key, and injuries up front have really hindered what this team can do.
FTRS: The Rebels look to be a bit of a "running back by committee" type of group, with 3 guys going for at least 460 yards and I'Tavius Mathers leading the team with only 506 yards. What's the story here? Is it injuries, breakout players, or just different functions of each running back within the offense?
RCR: Jeff Scott was the team's feature back for the first few weeks of the season before a deep thigh bruise limited what he could do. Jaylen Walton and I'Tavius Mathers then stepped in to form a dynamic duo of sorts. They aren't exactly the "thunder and lightning" combination that some Rebels hoped for, but they do complement each other well. Walton's smaller and quicker, but is confident enough to run between the tackles, while Mathers is a bigger back who runs a bit more upright. Walton is a bit more capable than Mathers in the passing game to boot, but neither are as reliable out of the backfield as Scott.
FTRS: We've heard quite a bit about the offensive line being banged up, something the Yellow Jackets have had to deal extensively with this season as well. What is the expectation for that unit over the course of this game?
RCR: So much hinges on freshman left tackle Laremy Tunsil. Tunsil, as you may be familiar, was the top high school offensive tackle prospect last year, and he stepped up almost immediately to take over the left tackle spot this season as a true freshman. He earned All-SEC and Freshman All-American honors this year, and proved very deserving of his hype. Unfortunately for the Rebs, He injured his MCL early against Mississippi State, and probably won't start in the Music City Bowl. If he can play, even for a handful of drives, he can be a real difference maker.
On top of that, freshman tackle Austin Golson's season was ended with shoulder surgery, and All-SEC left guard Aaron Morris tore his ACL against Vanderbilt. So the Rebels will take the field with a patchwork offensive line against what I feel is a solid Tech defense - particularly against the run. This means that I worry that, if the offensive line is not up to the task, a lot of Rebel drives will stall early with stuffed runs and hurried quarterbacks on first down.
FTRS: Defensively, the Rebels have a lot of talent in the front 7, though much of it is very young. What are the feelings of Ole Miss fans on this group and its production this season?
RCR: The Rebel defensive front is another area where injuries have really depleted an otherwise solid group of players. CJ Johnson, who led Ole Miss ins sacks last season, saw his season ended early on with a foot surgery. Robert Nkemdiche, the number one recruit in the country last season, missed several games with a hamstring injury. Defensive ends Carlos Thompson and Cameron Wigham dealt with lingering neck and back injuries. Linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche had his knee scoped due to a meniscus injury. And All-SEC linebacker Serderius Bryant missed playing time due to a pretty nasty concussion.
Considering all those issues, fans are pretty pleased from what we've seen up front, particularly from the backups and freshmen. The Rebel defense is young and undersized across the board, but has hung in most games due to playing intelligent, opportunistic football. Their performances also have us excited for the future of this defense (which is probably one of the most "Ole Miss fan" things I can say).
FTRS: Coach Hugh Freeze is in his second year at the helms, where he's had a decent amount of success so far. Last year we learned that he's a very good recruiter. How does he compliment that as an on-field coach? Are Rebels fans happy with him and where the program is at and headed?
RCR: Are fans happy? Yes and no.
I'm happy. I think he's an excellent recruiter and a good coach. He gets a lot out of his players and has had this team competitive against a lot of easily more talented teams.
Some fans, however - and I do believe they're in the minority - are not happy. College football is very much a "what have you done for me lately" business, and Hugh Freeze's second season ended on two lackluster performances back-to-back. The Rebel offense looked lethargic and unimaginative against Missouri and Mississippi State. Losing to the former, a top-10 team, isn't so bad. Losing to the latter, however, is very bad, particularly in this rivalry and particularly considering that Mississippi State was just 5-6 heading into that game. That said, the Egg Bowl loss is the only time that he's lost to the underdog during his time at Ole Miss. It's the only game he lost that he should have won, so to speak. It sucks, it's embarrassing, and its inexcusable, but it's something that a lot of us can overlook due to his success overall.
As far as the direction of the program is concerned, I feel that if he can keep recruiting at a high level, then the team is bound only to improve.
Thanks again to Bob and the crew over at Red Cup Rebellion!!