ENTERING THE RED ZONE
Ole Miss had one of the SEC's best attacks at times last season, averaging 6.0 yards per play and a league-leading 78.3 plays per game, but execution was often a problem. The Rebels ended the year next to last in the conference in red zone efficiency (73.9%). That inability to finish kept Ole Miss from contending in the SEC West last season.
Senior Bo Wallace holds the keys to coach Hugh Freeze's up-tempo offense. No SEC quarterback has started more games than Wallace, who ranks second in school history in passing yards (6,340). The 6'4" senior played through an injured right (throwing) shoulder last year but is now healthy, and he worked on his throwing technique during the off-season. Sophomore receiver Laquon Treadwell and sophomore tight end Evan Engram should give Wallace plenty to work with through the air, while tailbacks I'Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton, who combined for almost 1,100 rushing yards last year, will man the backfield.
Nine starters are back on defense, including 6'2" senior safety Cody Prewitt, a first-team All-America last fall. This will be the best team Freeze has had in his three years in Oxford, but even a drastic improvement in scoring efficiency won't be enough to vault the Rebels to the top of the stacked SEC West.
C.J. Johnson, a 6'2", 225-pound defensive end, had 55 tackles and 6½ sacks as a sophomore in 2012, but he played only four games last season before having surgery on his right ankle. The Rebels missed him: As a team they had just 20 sacks (11th in the SEC) and featured a mediocre pass rush. The Ole Miss defensive line has two proven players in sophomore tackle Robert Nkemdiche and junior nosetackle Woodrow Hamilton, and now that Johnson is healthy, he'll slide back into the starting lineup and give the D the spark it needs.
The Rebels were lucky to get Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State at home while also landing Tennessee as their rotating SEC East opponent. Road matchups at Texas A&M (Oct. 11) and LSU (Oct. 25) are obvious roadblocks, but don't overlook the team's intriguing neutral-site opener against Boise State in Atlanta.
OPPOSING COACH'S TAKE
Last year they had wide receivers who were playmakers, like [Donte] Moncrief and Laquon Treadwell. In the passing game they were able to make explosive plays to get to the red zone. They could win those one-on-one battles. The quarterback was a gunslinger. It was feast or famine—Bo Wallace would turn the ball over a lot, but he also made a lot of plays. If he limits the turnovers, he could have a scary season. [He's] the most experienced quarterback returning in our league, going on his third season in Hugh Freeze's system. You can't ever underrate that. On defense some of those guys who were young last year have the talent to be elite players in the SEC. From linebacker [Tony] Conner and their safeties to the defensive lineman [Robert] Nkemdiche, and a couple of others, I think they have a chance to have one of the top defenses in the league.
SI POWER RANKINGS / By Rotowire.com
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SPECIAL TEAMS 77%
SPRUCE DERDEN/USA TODAY SPORTS (NKEMDICHE)
DERICK E. HINGLE/USA TODAY SPORTS (JOHNSON)