Over the next few weeks, we will start taking a look at the SEC teams and discuss the apparent strengths and weaknesses of them as the 2013 season nears.
The idea is to identify what we “know” – as much as we can “know” anything about a season that has yet to start. We will also examine what we think we know, what we don’t know and when we might have answers to the biggest questions.
What We Know
Donte Moncrief gives the Rebels one of the best receivers in the league – Yes, Moncrief did have a few no-shows last season, but the junior also showed dynamic, playmaking ability to make him one of the most-feared receivers in the SEC. Just ask Mississippi State, which got lit up for seven catches, 173 yards and 3 TDs. Oh, and that was against one of the best cornerback duos in the conference. Moncrief finished just shy of 1,000 yards last season and caught 10 TD passes. Especially with WR Vince Sanders down with a broken collarbone early in the season, look for him to surpass those numbers in what could prove to be his final season on The Grove.
For good and for bad, QB Bo Wallace is one of the most exciting players in the SEC – Whether rearing back to unleash a 50-yard touchdown pass, scrambling around like a mad man being chased by a yeti or tossing terrible interceptions that turn into pick-sixes, Wallace is one of the most exciting players in the league. Wallace missed spring practice while recovering from offseason surgery on his throwing shoulder. He’s now back in practice – and making the same frustrating decisions he made a year ago. The high-risk, high-reward style of Wallace resulted in his throwing for 2,994 yards and 22 TDs, but also 17 INTs. He also rushed for 8 TDs. Now a senior, Wallace runs one of the most high-powered offenses in the conference. His play was an enormous factor in turning around the Rebels in 2012. Wallace’s ability – or inability to limit costly mistakes will likely determine if they can take the next step or if they could fall below other SEC West teams.
What We Think We Know
The run game, behind an experienced offensive line and RB Jeff Scott, can produce big plays – Not only do the Rebels return four out of five offensive linemen, they also brought in a tremendous influx of young talent that could contribute. Competition has sparked some incumbent starters to work a little harder as well, with two-year starter Aaron Morris getting pushed for a spot. Scott, last year’s leading rusher, is undersized at 5-foot-7, 170 pounds but is capable of breaking away for big gains.
C.J. Johnson and Robert Nkemdiche could give the Rebels one of the best defensive end tandems in the SEC – Johnson is back from a broken leg and brings with him good experience from a 2012 season that saw him record 6.5 tackles. While solid, that number doesn’t keep quarterbacks up Friday nights before they play Ole Miss. Nkemdiche, the No. 1 recruit in the nation last year, will. Before ever taking a collegiate snap, Nkemdiche elicits comparisons to South Carolina DE Jadeveon Clowney. He will be expected to make a similarly disruptive debut in 2013 as well. Assuming Johnson progresses and Nkemdiche comes close to living up to the hype, the Rebels’ pass rush will improve dramatically.
What We Don’t Know
How much better will the Ole Miss defense be? – That the Rebels return seven starters is the classic good news/bad news when discussing a unit that needs to improve. Yes, the seven incumbent starters should have more experience. They also must play much better than the defense that allowed 30 points five times, including 66 at home to Texas. LB Denzel Nkemdiche returns to anchor the unit after the undersized freshman made an impact immediately last year. Younger brother Robert Nkemdiche is expected to be a beast from the second he takes the field. Four of the five regulars in the 2012 secondary return with CB Charles Sawyer looking like the best of the bunch. How much the defense improves could hinge on the defensive tackles. When Will We Know? A two-game road stretch with games at Texas and at Alabama should reveal just how physically tough the Ole Miss defense is – especially upfront. If the Rebels aren’t physically prepared, both games could get ugly quickly.
Can the Rebels gain the tough yards in clutch moments? – The biggest non-turnover criticism about the offense last year came on short-yardage situations. Had Ole Miss been better, it likely would have won eight regular-season games instead of six – including victories in tight games against Vanderbilt and Texas A&M. Traditionalists would argue the issue’s root lies within the very nature of the hurry-up, no-huddle spread offense – that offenses can move the ball but aren’t tough enough to hit opponents in the mouth. Of course, there are myriad examples to the contrary, led by the 2010 Auburn offense coordinated by Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze’s close friend Gus Malzahn. When Will We Know? Immediately. What Ole Miss lacked in this category, Vanderbilt has relied upon in spades to reach consecutive bowl games. James Franklin’s teams are mentally and physically tough. The Rebels need to be ready to impose their will in critical moments to leave Nashville with a victory.