Since 2014, Ole Miss is 7-1 following losses, including 2-0 in 2016. That’s a promising number for a team coming off its second conference defeat and third overall, a 34-30 loss at Arkansas last Saturday.
Yet, the No. 23 Rebels (3-3, 1-2 Southeastern Conference) haven’t beat LSU in Baton Rouge since 2008 and have done so only one other time in the last 15 years. The two teams will meet for the 105th time Saturday at 8 p.m. in Tiger Stadium.
To find out more about Ole Miss, we bring you our Pick 6 series – a Q&A with a beat writer covering LSU’s opponent – for another week. Ben Garrett, who is the editor of Scout.com’s Ole Miss Spirit, kindly joined us to answer our questions about Hugh Freeze’s squad.
You can follow Garrett on Twitter @SpiritBen and his read his work here.
1.) Despite playing well against some of the better teams in the nation, Ole Miss is sitting at .500 through six games and already has two conference losses. Do you get the sense the Rebels will play inspired for the remaining six games, including against LSU?
If past seasons are any indication, a Hugh Freeze-coached team always bounces back and plays inspired when facing adversity, a tough loss or failing to reach expectations. A year ago, for example, Ole Miss lost at Memphis, only to reel off wins in four of its final five games, including wins over Texas A&M, LSU and in-state rival Mississippi State. I expect more of the same this season as far as effort is concerned.
Will the results be the same? That remains to be seen, but the leadership on this team - from Chad Kelly and Evan Engram to D.J. Jones and Tony Conner - is too strong to expect Ole Miss to mail it in or be unmotivated. And LSU is one of the Rebels' longest-held rivals, not to mention their former head coach will be standing on the opposing sideline. If they can't get up for this one, well, they won't be able to get up for any game the rest of the way.
2.) Much has and will be made about Ed Orgeron facing his old team for the first time. Orgeron acknowledges his time in Oxford is one he would like to forget. From what you know, is the feeling mutual for Ole Miss fans?
Um, safe to say the feeling is mutual. The Ed Orgeron hire was doomed from the start. Ole Miss was set to hire Dennis Erikson in 2004. The contract was written up and all parties had agreed to terms. But at the last minute, a high-ranking Ole Miss administrator axed the deal and moved on Orgeron, a coach who had never even been a coordinator in his coaching career, let alone a head coach. The 10-25 (3-21 SEC) record that followed was comical in its predictability, and the stories of how poorly he treated his coaching staff, players and pretty much anyone close to the program was well-documented. Ask any Ole Miss person and they likely have an Orgeron story.
One thing is for sure, however, Orgeron showed a fearless approach to recruiting and proved Ole Miss was a school capable of landing elite talent. He simply had no clue what to do with them once he got them on campus. But really, there's very little connection to coach O anymore. Hugh Freeze and Dan Werner was on his staff, but that's pretty much it. Save for the fans, the Orgeron years are a distant, distant memory, and Orgeron seems to have learned from his myriad mistakes. Ole Miss has recovered, too. It's a breakup that had to happen, but there never should have been a relationship to begin with.
Ed Orgeron’s mind is full of regrets from his time as Ole Miss’ head coach. They’re as plent…
3.) Last year’s Rebels defense was stout against the run, ranking in the top 25 nationally in rushing defense. That hasn’t been the case this year, as Ole Miss is allowing more than 200 rushing yards per game. What has been the biggest difference from last year to this year in that area?
Linebacker play. For all the talk of Ole Miss' recruiting, few acknowledge the alarming lack of talent at linebacker. DeMarquis Gates has proven capable over his Ole Miss career, but save for his production, the unit is void of players who would start at other contending SEC schools.
Against Memphis, for example, Ole Miss started a walk-on and a lightly-recruited junior college transfer. Little-used reserve Ray Ray Smith - a former three-star prospect with a thin career resume - earned the start, only because Ole Miss was trying something, anything, to get better. Ole Miss has missed on a number of top targets at the position over the years: Leo Lewis, Nyles Morgan, Duke Riley, Darrin Kirkland, etc. It's showing.
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4.) Ole Miss seems to be pretty young in the secondary. Under Orgeron, the Tigers have proven they’ll take shots down the field. Do you see this being a big test for Rebels defensive backs?
Young as they may be, the Rebel secondary has held up pretty well through six games. They've assembled a nice collection of talent, though they'll most-assuredly be tested against LSU this weekend. However, the real question is can Ole Miss generate pressure. The secondary will compete, as they did in a 34-30 loss to Arkansas. But they can only maintain coverage for so long. What was thought to be a vaunted Rebel defensive line has to control the line of scrimmage, and Ole Miss can only hope at this point the linebackers it runs out there hold up in some capacity.
Ole Miss is excited about the secondary and its future. Deontay Anderson has the look of a superstar, sophomore safety Zedrick Woods has been, arguably, the defensive MVP and the potential of cornerbacks Jalen Julius and Jaylon Jones is tremendous. But they can't do it alone.
5.) The Ole Miss receiving corps struggled with drops late against Arkansas, but that unit appears to have plenty of weapons for quarterback Chad Kelly. Not to mention, tight end Evan Engram leads the SEC in receiving yards. What makes the wide receivers and Engram so lethal?
Strength in numbers. Just as Houston Nutt would always land good running backs, Freeze will always land good receivers. His offense lends itself to at least eight receivers playing in a given game, as everything is funneled through the passing game. Of Ole Miss' top six wide receivers, five were four-star or better prospects in high school.
Evan Engram is one of Freeze's greatest recruiting successes. He landed him as a three-star prospect over South Alabama. But he's been a four-year starter and a perfect fit for Freeze's up-tempo offense. He plays more as a "big wide receiver" than a tight end, and he's easily been the No. 1 target for quarterback Chad Kelly. The unit is relentless in its approach, and there's no obvious answer on how to slow them down.
Arkansas had success because Ole Miss struggled to run the football, which has been a recurring theme for the Rebels over the last three years. If LSU shuts down the Ole Miss rushing attack, the Rebels will inevitably struggle with rhythm through the air. And when they lose control of pace, the entire game is compromised. Three-and-outs lead to a defense already on the field too much playing even more, and on and on. Ole Miss has to establish some semblance of a running game. If it does, it could be a good night in Death Valley for the away team. If not ... you get the idea.
6.) Kelly is obviously one of the best passers in the league, but he’s shown that he can make plays with his feet. He actually led the team in rushing against Arkansas. Aside from Kelly, how important will it be for Ole Miss to establish a ground game against LSU?
See above. Ole Miss is at its fast-paced best when it is running. Against Arkansas, the Rebels fell behind and all but abandoned the run despite the fact they were averaging almost 5.0 yards per carry. Ole Miss was already at a disadvantage this season when Jordan Wilkins was ruled academically ineligible prior to the season-opening game against Florida State. Then Eric Swinney went down with an ACL tear in the loss to the Seminoles. Suffice to say, Ole Miss is playing with limited numbers.
The running backs are what they are. But that's no excuse, really. Ole Miss can't sustain drives without a consistent threat on the ground. Arkansas proved as much.
The next level: Tigers defense keeps on moving