After what seems like an eternity of an offseason for Ole Miss, it’s a safe bet to say the Rebel faithful are glad to finally have the focal point of conversations shifted to what will happen on the field, instead of everything that has transpired off of it.
Following allegations of personal misconduct, Hugh Freeze resigned in late July, leaving athletic officials to tab co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Matt Luke as interim head coach for the 2017 season. The Rebels are coming off a 5-7 record that saw them lose their last two games against Vanderbilt and Mississippi State. Ole Miss returns six starters on offense and five on defense.
South Alabama opened its 2016 season in a big way with a win at Mississippi State en route to a 6-7 year. With its win against the Bulldogs, South Alabama won its third consecutive season opener. Two Jaguar coaches share Ole Miss connections as defensive coordinator Kane Wommack served as a graduate assistant in 2012-13, and assistant coach Tyler Siskey was Ole Miss’ recruiting development coordinator in 2012. The Jaguars return 12 starters.
Saturday’s game marks the first meeting between the two schools. Ole Miss is 31-1-2 historically against Sun Belt opponents, while South Alabama is 1-4 against the SEC.
South Alabama at Ole Miss
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 2 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPNU
Spread: Ole Miss -24
Three Things to Watch
1. The spotlight on Shea Patterson
One of the greatest gifts Hugh Freeze bestowed to Ole Miss is former five-star quarterback recruit and current sophomore Shea Patterson. When Freeze departed Oxford, questions surrounding Patterson’s future at Ole Miss dominated conversations. Patterson, however, quelled such talk at SEC Media Days when he reaffirmed his commitment to the program.
With Chad Kelly now in Denver, the Rebels are Patterson’s team. And after his showing late last season, Ole Miss fans have a reason to be optimistic. Patterson, who is on the Maxwell and O’Brien Awards watch lists, started three games for the Rebels last season and went 72-of-132 for 880 yards and six touchdowns and three interceptions. Patterson threw for 338 yards in his first career start at Texas A&M and broke the 300-yard passing mark again (320 yards) in the Egg Bowl against Mississippi State. He also tallied 169 rushing yards on 41 attempts. Patterson should continue to shine under the tutelage of new Ole Miss offensive coordinator Phil Longo, who shined as head coach at FCS member Sam Houston State.
2. South Alabama running back Xavier Johnson vs. Ole Miss' rush defense
Johnson, a senior, is just 363 yards shy of becoming the Jaguars’ all-time leading rusher. He’s accumulated 2,225 yards (5.9 yards per carry) and 18 touchdowns through three years in Mobile. He’s recorded nine 100-yard games in his career and one more would make him the school’s career leader in that department as well. Depending on which run defense takes the field for Ole Miss, he could leave Oxford with that record in tow.
Ole Miss was among the worst in the country in stopping the run last season, finishing 117th out of 128 FBS teams after giving up 247.6 rushing yards per game. Wesley McGriff was brought in as defensive coordinator last December to help the Rebels chart a new course. McGriff isn’t new to Ole Miss as he served under Freeze as co-defensive coordinator and cornerbacks coach, and had success turning the unit around in 2012. In addition to his SEC ties — he’s coached at Auburn and Vanderbilt — McGriff had been a member of the New Orleans Saints coaching staff the past three years.
3. How Ole Miss responds to adversity
If Freeze’s not-that-surprising resignation isn’t enough distraction, try adding the NCAA’s impending ruling on Ole Miss’ current case. Sure, Freeze is no longer the top man, but Ole Miss has made it patently clear throughout this ordeal that it and Freeze stayed within the bounds of the NCAA’s rules while deflecting the wrongdoing on former staff members. The NCAA probably still isn’t buying that defense, which could make for a difficult future in Oxford.
With a one-year, self-imposed bowl ban, and the likely scenario that more penalties will probably be added, coupled with self-imposed scholarship reductions that span through 2018, it's not a stretch to say that an uninspired, distracted Ole Miss team will take the field Saturday night against South Alabama.
One year ago, mentioning the possibility of South Alabama walking into Vaught-Hemingway Stadium and taking a win from a rising Ole Miss team would probably get you laughed at pretty much anywhere in Oxford. Say those words today and a few Rebel fans probably would agree with you. The Jaguars from the Sun Belt have already shown they have what it takes to compete with and beat SEC teams. So Ole Miss fans who were laughing at their Mississippi State counterparts this time last year have good reason to believe their team could suffer the same fate. With that said, a beleaguered Rebels team should still have what it takes to defeat South Alabama on Saturday night to give Matt Luke his first career win as a head coach.
Prediction: Ole Miss 28, South Alabama 17
— Written by Elton Hayes, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. A sports reporter for The Meridian Star Newspaper, Hayes also has been an invited guest on “The Paul Finebaum Show.” Follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.