The Rebels rank No. 58 in Athlon's Top 130 for 2018
Matt Luke proved last year to be a capable head coach, coaxing six wins out of an Ole Miss team burdened by more than its share of off-the-field drama. Luke's job once again is to keep his team motivated without the carrot of a bowl game (barring a late reprieve from the NCAA). The offense, led by one of the nation's top groups of wide receivers, should score a bunch of points, especially if Luke can find a suitable replacement for 1,000-yard rusher Jordan Wilkins. Ole Miss' season will be defined by its defense, which was repeatedly gashed against the run in 2017 -- to the tune of 270.5 rushing yards per game in SEC play. If the defense shows moderate improvement -- most notably in the front seven -- there's reason to believe Ole Miss can break even or better in 2018.
Previewing Ole Miss Football's Offense for 2018
A.J. Brown, one of the most talented wide receivers in the nation, leads a potentially explosive Ole Miss offense. Brown led the SEC with 75 catches for 1,252 yards last year. He had 11 touchdown catches and is a projected top-10 pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. DK Metcalf, a sophomore, is a matchup problem at 6'4" and is one of three returning receivers who caught at least 39 passes a year ago. Tight end Dawson Knox, savvy and physical in the seam or on crossing routes, is poised for a big season.
The beneficiary of this talented group of pass catchers is senior quarterback Jordan Ta'amu, who showed poise when thrust into the starting role late last season following Shea Patterson's injury. Patterson has since transferred to Michigan, leaving Ta'amu as the unquestioned starter.
A passing game is at its best when boosted by a solid run game, and that's where the questions begin as the Rebels seek to replace 1,000-yard rusher Jordan Wilkins. The leading candidate is junior D'Vaughn Pennamon, a powerful runner who must prove to be healthy after undergoing offseason knee surgery. Pennamon missed the spring, allowing junior college transfer Scottie Phillips and freshman Isaiah Woullard to get some much-needed reps. Junior Eric Swinney ran with the first team in spring and will also compete for the job.
Left tackle Greg Little, a projected first-round pick in 2019, is the anchor of an experienced group that loses only right tackle Rod Taylor from a year ago and returns five players who have started at least eight games.
Previewing Ole Miss Football's Defense for 2018
Defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff hopes increased physicality in the Rebels' front seven will improve a run defense that allowed a staggering 270.5 rushing yards per game against SEC opponents.
Senior Detric Bing-Dukes and junior Willie Hibbler emerged from spring practice atop the depth chart at the two linebackers in the 4-2-5 scheme. "We need some size in the box even if we lose a little speed," coach Matt Luke says. "We need to be more physical."
Vernon Dasher played linebacker in junior college last year and is the likely starter at Star, a fifth defensive back who lines up as an outside linebacker when McGriff wants a 4-3 look. Dasher enrolled early and shows a physical style.
Myles Hartsfield and Ken Webster give the Rebels experience at the corners, and Zedrick Woods returns for a third season to start at free safety.
The Rebels hope Victor Evans and Qaadir Sheppard emerge as the next wave of playmakers at end to replace the departed Marquis Haynes and Breeland Speaks.
Previewing Ole Miss Football's Specialists for 2018
The Rebels will have a new placekicker and punter, both walk-ons. Sophomore Luke Logan will be the kicker. His leg strength is solid, but his accuracy under fire is to be determined. The punter will be Mac Brown.
Luke, a popular former player and Ole Miss assistant coach, led the Rebels to a 6-6 mark in a tumultuous 2017 that included the cloud of the NCAA investigation hovering above. His candidacy for the full-time job was not looking strong until the Rebels won three of their last four games, including a 31-28 upset at No. 16 Mississippi State.
Barring a reprieve, Ole Miss is banned from a bowl game for the second straight season. The Rebels have enough firepower on offense to pose some serious problems, but they will need to show significant improvement on defense -- most notably against the run -- to reach the six-win mark again.