Ole Miss looks like ‘Bama’s biggest threat in SEC West

Zach Evans, a former five-star recruit to TCU in the 2020 class, has a 7.3 career yards-per-carry average.

Since Ole Miss lost four of its first five games to start Lane Kiffin’s tenure, it has compiled an impressive 14-4 straight-up record and an 11-7 against-the-spread mark.

Don’t expect last year’s breakout campaign to be an anomaly as long as Kiffin is in Oxford, either. The Rebels went 10-3 SU and 8-5 ATS in 2021 and, if star quarterback Matt Corrall doesn’t go down with an injured ankle in the first quarter of the Sugar Bowl against Baylor, they probably end up 11-2 SU and 9-4 ATS.

Eight of Ole Miss’s 10 wins came by double-digit margins, including a 31-21 win at Mississippi St. in the Egg Bowl. The Rebels lost at top-ranked Alabama (42-21), at 18th-ranked Auburn (31-20) and vs. sixth-ranked Baylor (21-7), but they beat 13th-ranked Arkansas (52-51) and 11th-ranked Texas A&M (29-19). In addition, Ole Miss had solid, spread-covering wins vs. Louisville (43-24 in Atlanta), at Tennessee (31-26) and vs. LSU (31-17).

Kiffin’s team returns seven starters from a defense that was vastly improved, going from giving up an average of 38.3 points per game in 2020 to limiting foes to just 24.7 PPG last season. However, Jimbo Fisher stole defensive coordinator DJ Durkin away to take the same gig at Texas A&M. Durkin is being replaced by Maurice Crum, who served as Western Kentucky’s DC the last two years.

Ole Miss averaged 33.7 PPG last year, which was a dip from its 39.2 PPG clip in 2020. The Rebels compensated with better defense and a +9 turnover margin.

In the 21-7 loss to Baylor in New Orleans, the defense played one of its best games in years. The Bears scored their first TD when Ole Miss backup QB Luke Altmyer threw an interception deep in the red zone that was taken back 96 yards for a pick-six. Another interception late in the fourth quarter set up a 15-yard scoring drive for Baylor to put the game on ice.

With Corral off to the NFL along with key players like LB Chance Campbell, DE Sam Williams and RB Jerrion Ealy (just to name a few), Kiffin diligently filled roster holes by masterfully working the transfer portal. According to 247Sports, the Rebels hauled in the nation’s second-best group of transfers behind only Lincoln Riley’s bunch at USC. They brought in a total of 17 players, including 13 from Power Five programs.

Jaxson Dart, a former four-star recruit who started three games as a true freshman at USC last season, is Corral’s likely replacement, assuming he can hold off Altmyer this month. Dart completed 117-of-189 passes (61.9%) for 1,353 yards with a 9/5 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He also had a pair of rushing TDs.

Ealy (768 rushing yards, five TDs and a 5.8 yards-per-carry average) wasn’t the only loss at the RB position. Snoop Conner (647, 13 TDs and 5.0 YPC) and Henry Parrish (553, three TDs, 5.3 YPC) are also gone. However, their 1,968 combined rushing yards and 21 rushing TDs might get trumped by the combination of Zach Evans and Ulysses Bentley.

Evans was a five-star recruit to TCU who played two seasons for the Horned Frogs. He appeared in nine games as a true freshman in 2020, rushing for 415 yards and four TDs while averaging 7.7 YPC. Evans was limited to six games last season due to an injury. He had 648 rushing yards and five TDs for a 7.0 YPC average. Evans also has 18 career receptions for 206 yards and one TD.

Bentley started 14 of 24 career games in three seasons at SMU, rushing for 1,559 yards and 15 TDs with a 5.7 YPC average. He has 41 career catches for 294 yards and two TDs.

The Rebels lost their top-three pass catchers, but WR Jonathan Mingo is back after missing seven games due to injury in 2021. Mingo was limited to 22 receptions for 346 yards and three TDs last year, but he has 61 career catches for 897 yards and seven TDs.

Kiffin added talent from out of the portal at WR, too. Jaylon Robinson started 16 games at UCF over the last two seasons. In 2020, he had 55 receptions for 979 yards and six TDs in 10 games.

There’s also Missouri transfer Jalen Knox, who started 16 of 29 games he played in for the Tigers from 2019-21. He has caught 77 balls in his career for 1,031 yards and four TDs. Knox also has 106 rushing yards and one TD on 15 career attempts.

In two years at Louisville, WR Jordan Watkins started 14 of 19 games he played in. He had 35 catches for 531 yards and four TDs in 2021. As a true freshman in 2020, he had a 23-yard TD run on what’s his only career rushing attempt.

As for the offensive line, four starters with 111 career starts return. This unit also adds offensive tackle Mason Brooks, who was a first-team All-Conference USA selection at Western Kentucky last year. Brooks started 26 of 45 career games he played in during four seasons with the Hilltoppers, who averaged 44.2 PPG in 2021.

Ole Miss lost 37 lettermen from last year’s squad, in addition to its offensive and defensive coordinators. OC Jeff Lebby left for the same position at Oklahoma. He’s being replaced by Charlie Weis Jr., who spent two seasons with Kiffin at FAU before serving as Co-OC at South Florida the last two years.

The bottom line is that I trust Kiffin with his offense whether it’s him or Weis actually calling the plays.

Phil Steele’s National Unit Rankings left the Rebels’ defensive line and special-teams units unranked. (His National Unit Rankings go up into the 58-65 range with most position groups.) They’re No. 37 at QB, No. 27 at the RB position, No. 18 at WR, No. 27 along the offensive line, No. 27 at LB and No. 18 in the secondary.

Campbell led the Rebels in tackles last year after coming to Oxford as a transfer from Maryland. Kiffin will try to replace him with Central Michigan transfer LB Troy Brown, who is a two-time, first-team All-MAC selection.

In 2019 as a true sophomore, Brown led the MAC in both tackles (89, including 73 solo stops) and tackles for loss with 17.5. He also had three interceptions, two passes broken up, one fumble recovery and one sack. He has started 31 of 39 career games, producing 212 tackles (159 solo), 32.5 TFL’s, 12 PBU, 6.5 sacks, five interceptions, four forced fumbles and a pair of fumble recoveries.

Isheem Young is another transfer who will man the STAR position. Young started 21 of 24 games in two seasons at Iowa St., tallying 109 career tackles to go with five forced fumbles, five PBU, three intercepions, 2.5 TFL’s and one fumble recovery.

Both safeties are back after solid 2021 seasons. AJ Finley and Otis Reese finished in a tie for third-most tackles with 90 apiece last year. Finley had four PBU, three interceptions, one pick-six, one forced fumble and one TFL, while Reese recorded two TFL’s, two PBU, 1.5 sacks and one forced fumble. Reese and Finley have combined to start 37 career games for the Rebels.

Cedric Johnson appears poised for a big season in his third year at Ole Miss. He’ll man the BUCK position after starting 11 of 13 games in 2021. He had 33 tackles, 6.5 sacks and seven QB hurries last year.

The defensive line welcomes a pair of four-star transfers in DE Jared Ivey and DT JJ Pegues. Ivy was also a four-star recruit coming out of high school to Ga. Tech. For the Yellow Jackets in 2021, Ivey recorded 32 tackles, six TFL’s, 1.5 sacks, one forced fumble and one PBU in 11 starts.

Pegues, who was also a four-star prospect coming out of high school, played in six games at tight end as a true freshman at Auburn. He moved to DT last season, starting one of nine games he appeared in. Pegues produced 16 tackles and two TFL’s.

Both specialists are gone, but Kiffin is hoping that Charlotte transfer kicker Jonathan Cruz will thrive in the SEC. Cruz started 42 games for the 49ers over the last four years, making 40-of-55 career field-goal attempts with a career long of 56 yards. Punter Fraser Masin is a 6-foot-6 Aussie who was in for the spring.

DraftKings has the cheapest price (-135) that I’ve been able to find for gamblers wanting to back Ole Miss’s season win total to go ‘over’ 7.5 games. A lot of spots have the ‘over’ juiced up into the -160 to -175 range, so make sure to shop around if you’re looking to fire on the ‘over.’

The first four games comprise the entire non-conference slate. Most books have the Rebels installed as 24-point home favorites for their opener vs. Troy on Sept. 3. The total is 61 points.

Next, Ole Miss hosts Central Arkansas before going to Atlanta to face Ga. Tech on ‘The Flats’ at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Midtown. The Yellow Jackets are going to be way down this year, with FanDuel listing the Rebels as 10.5-point road ‘chalk’ in their Games of the Year. They’ll wrap up non-conference play at home vs. Tulsa in Week 4.

Kiffin’s bunch hosts Kentucky in Week 5. He has a 5-1 SU record and a 4-2 ATS mark in six games against SEC East foes since taking over in Oxford. The lone defeat was in his first game vs. fifth-ranked Florida when Kyle Trask and Kyle Pitts torched the Rebels in a 51-35 road win. I lean to Ole Miss to win a close game over the Wildcats.

Look for the Rebels to improve to 6-0 with a road win at Vanderbilt on Oct. 8. Then Auburn comes to Oxford, where Ole Miss will be looking to avenge last year’s defeat on The Plains. The Tigers are 12-3 SU and 10-5 ATS in their last 15 trips to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Nevertheless, I think Ole Miss will be favored and remain undefeated with a victory in this spot.

The back end of the schedule is brutal, though. Ole Miss will be playing its eighth game in eight weeks when it goes to LSU on Oct. 22, but Brian Kelly’s squad will be in that same boat. The Rebels ended a five-game losing streak to LSU last year, but they’ve still lost six in a row at Tiger Stadium in Redstick.

Ole Miss has to go to College Station the following week to face Texas A&M. The Aggies saw their four-game winning streak that started with a stunning upset of undefeated and top-ranked Alabama go up in flames in Oxford last year.

FanDuel has Ole Miss listed as a 2.5-point underdog at LSU, but the South Point in Las Vegas has this game as a pick ’em. DraftKings has the Rebels as nine-point underdogs against Jimbo Fisher’s team, but they’re 10-point ‘dogs at the South Point.

After the trip to Kyle Field, Ole Miss finally gets its open date and two weeks to prepare for Alabama at home. The Crimson Tide has to play at LSU on Nov. 5, so it’ll be off a rivalry game and travelling for a second straight weekend. DraftKings has Nick Saban’s team listed as a 14-point road favorite at Ole Miss, while the South Point has ‘Bama at -15.

However, I believe that the trip to Oxford represents the toughest test Alabama will face all season. Ole Miss has the situational advantages vs. ‘Bama, but that won’t be the case the following week in Fayetteville, where Arkansas will be looking to avenge a one-point loss in last year’s slugfest. (Arkansas went for two after scoring a potential tying TD in the final minute, only to come up short.)

Ole Miss has won the Egg Bowl in each of Kiffin’s first two seasons at the helm, and FanDuel has the Rebels listed as 5.5-point home ‘chalk’ for this year’s showdown. Ole Miss is only -1.5 vs. Mississippi St. at the South Point, though.

Again, I think Ole Miss starts 7-0. The Rebels have a good chance to split the back-to-back road assignments in Baton Rouge and College Station, and I’m not conceding defeat against Alabama. I think the Razorbacks will avenge last year’s loss, but look for Ole Miss to respond with a third consecutive Egg Bowl victory.

Barring a rash of injuries (which is always a concern when betting ‘overs’ on season win totals), I think Ole Miss’s floor is an 8-4 record. I think the Rebels most likely go 9-3, but they can go 10-2 if they pull an upset against Alabama.

PREDICTION: Let’s go with two units on Ole Miss to go ‘over’ 7.5 wins at a -135 price (DraftKings). If the best price you can find on the ‘over’ is -160 or more expensive, reduce this wager to only one unit.

**B.E.’s Bonus Nuggets**

–Ole Miss was +937 in net yardage last season.

–Michael Trigg is a transfer tight end from USC that I didn’t mention above. He was a four-star recruit out of high school and was rated a four-star transfer by 247Sports. As a true freshman for the Trojans last year, Trigg had seven catches for 109 yards and one TD. He started all four games he played in before going down with a season-ending knee injury in early October.

–Another transfer we haven’t mentioned yet is former Mississippi St. WR Malik Heath, who started in nine of 20 games he played for the Bulldogs over the last two years. Heath had 37 receptions for 307 yards and three TDs in 2020, and he finished last season with 34 catches for 442 yards and five TDs.

–Nine of the 17 Ole Miss transfers were ranked four-star transfers by 247Sports. The only one we haven’t mentioned yet is former Auburn safety Ladarius Tennison, who was also a four star coming out of high school in the 2020 class. As a true freshman, Tennison had 21 tackles in eight games. He played in six games last season, recording 22 tackles and 4.5 TFL’s. Tennison has five career starts to his credit.

–DraftKings has Ole Miss listed with 50/1 odds to win the SEC Championship Game and 20/1 odds to win the SEC West. Since the SEC split into two divisions in 1992, the Rebels have never won the SEC West to make it to Atlanta for the SECCG.

–Kiffin has embraced analytics more than most head coaches in college football. Ole Miss led the nation in both fourth-down attempts (49) and fourth-down conversions (31) in 2021. The Rebels ranked 29th in fourth-down conversion percentage (63.3%).

–In Phil Steele’s preseason magazine, Ole Miss third-year sophomore OT Jeremy James is the only player to garner preseason first-team All-SEC honors. James was a fourth-team All-SEC selection last year. Mingo was the only Rebel to earn preseason second-team All-SEC honors. Finley and OG Nick Broeker were preseason third-team All-SEC picks, while Evans, Brooks and Johnson were on the fourth team.

–In Steele’s SEC Unit Rankings, Ole Miss is No. 10 at QB, No. 6 at RB, No. 4 at WR, No. 6 on the o-line, No. 12 on the d-line, No. 3 at LB, No. 5 in the secondary and No. 12 on special teams. He has the Rebels ranked fourth in team chemistry.

You can follow me on Twitter at @vegasbedwards.

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