Ole Miss had one of the most improved defenses in the country last season.

After allowing an SEC-worst 38.3 points per game in 2020, the Rebels allowed 24.7 last season. The 13.6 points-per-game reduction was 2nd only to Michigan among Power 5 teams last season.

But maintaining that standard won’t be easy. Ole Miss lost 6 starters, and 8 of its top 12 tacklers are gone, including defensive end Sam Williams and linebackers Chance Campbell and Mark Robinson.

But the Rebels do have several key players returning and head coach Lane Kiffin was very successful in luring players through the transfer portal.

So Ole Miss has put its defensive woes from 2 years ago in the past. Now the key is consistently playing more like the 2021 defense.

Here are 7 way-too-early predictions for Ole Miss’ defense in 2022:

1. Cedric Johnson will replace Sam Williams as the team leader in sacks

Williams was 2nd in the SEC with 13 sacks last season before moving on to the Dallas Cowboys as a 2nd-round draft choice.

Johnson was 2nd on the team with 6.5 sacks and he figures to succeed Williams as the top sack producer, though he won’t match Williams’ total from last season.

2. Transfers will bolster the defensive line

Johnson is joined on the line by other key returning players such as KD Hill, Tavius Robinson, Demon Clowney and Jakivuan Brown as well as Brandon Mack, who missed all of last season due to injury.

That’s a good starting point and the addition of transfers Jared Ivey (Georgia Tech) and JJ Pegues (Auburn) will be key for Ole Miss having a deep and reliable rotation.

3. Troy Brown will lead the linebackers

The Rebels lost 5 linebackers who lettered, including leading tackler Campbell and another starter in Robinson, and return just 2 contributors – Austin Keys and Ashanti Cistrunk.

The Rebels recently added Central Michigan transfer and veteran linebacker, Troy Brown, a 3-time All-MAC player at Central Michigan.

Brown made 215 total tackles in 41 career games for the Chippewas and should be one of the Rebels’ leading tacklers.

4. The secondary will be the strength of the defense

Ole Miss returns 4 starters in the secondary – Otis Reese, AJ Finley, Tysheem Johnson and Deantre Prince. Finley and Reese are the defense’s top returning tacklers.

The Rebels return several veteran backups, including Miles Battle, and added transfers Isheem Young (Iowa State) and Ladarius Tennison (Auburn).

5. Ole Miss will allow fewer yards than last season

The Rebels’ dramatic improvement in scoring average last season had a lot to do with takeaways. They had the 2nd-most takeaways in the SEC (21), which kept the point total down even while the yardage allowed was average at best.

Ole Miss was 8th in passing yards allowed, 11th in total yards allowed and 12th in rushing yards allowed.

The experience gained last season, the incoming transfers and the depth in the secondary will enable to Rebels to reduce those numbers.

6. The Rebels will reduce the number of explosive plays allowed

A lot of the yards the Rebels allowed came in chunks.

Ole Miss gave up 208 plays that covered 10+ yards. That was the 120th in the nation and most in the SEC — and 60 more than rival Mississippi State.

A bigger concern? It was only slightly better than what they allowed in 2020, which was Lane Kiffin’s first year. That group allowed a league-worst 176 such plays in 9 league games — an average of 19.6. Last year’s team allowed 142 such plays in 8 SEC games — an average of 17.75.

Getting out of the league basement in that category has to be a goal for Ole Miss’ new defensive staff.

7. Ole Miss will allow fewer points than last season

The reduction won’t be anywhere close to as big as it was from 2020 to 2021, but the number will go down again.

The allowance of fewer yards will set the stage for allowing fewer points and the schedule outside of the SEC West doesn’t feature particularly high-scoring offenses – Troy Central Arkansas, Georgia Tech, Tulsa, Kentucky and Vanderbilt.

Last year’s group featured more prolific offenses in Tennessee, Liberty and Louisville.