An open letter to Ole Miss fans: I know you're angry with Matt Luke, but the storm needs to be ridden out
To Ole Miss fans worldwide,
The 2018 season hasn’t been kind to the Rebels.
Sure, the Rebs are 3-2, which is about par for the Rebels program since 1963, the year of their last conference crown, and the opening week win over Texas Tech is looking better (if not surprising) by the week. Those two losses? To No. 1 Alabama and on the road against No. 5 LSU – not exactly games Ole Miss fans expect to win every year. So, from a distance, the 3-2 record really doesn’t really look that bad.
If only everything were as it appears from a distance.
Ole Miss is a bad football team this year, make no mistake about it. The two losses were particularly egregious, as the Rebels lost by a combined score of 107-23. In those two games, they gave up a combined 1,089 yards and were outgained by 513.
Let’s be honest: Even the wins were ugly. They allowed 629 yards of offense and 41 points at home to Southern Illinois (an FCS program), and gave up 38 points in the first half alone. Against an absolutely awful squad from Kent State, they went into halftime tied 7-7, and entered the fourth quarter leading just 24-17.
Losing to Alabama and LSU isn’t what infuriates you, though — it’s the way they’ve lost, playing games in which they weren’t even competitive.
Ole Miss fans can stomach losing to those teams so long as they don’t embarrass themselves, the program or the school. Just put up a fight and hang tough, but that hasn’t happened. The product they’ve put forth on the field in SEC play this year is, in a word, embarrassing.
You should be angry.
It’s the defense’s fault
The defense is absolutely putrid. They’re last in the SEC in points allowed per game (38.4), passing yards allowed per game (310), passing TDs allowed per game (2.6), rushing yards allowed per game (206.8), yards allowed per carry (4.7), rushing TDs allowed per game (2) and total yards allowed per game (516.8). That last stat is particularly gruesome. Mizzou has the second-worst defense in the SEC in terms of total yards allowed per game at 396. Think about that: the second-worst defense in the conference is giving up 120 yards less per game.
They’re on pace to break school records on defense for most points, yards allowed, passing yards allowed, rushing yards allowed, etc. It’s an historic defense, albeit for the wrong reasons.
Now, I know there’s a talent deficiency on defense. It’s very apparent when you watch them play. Late in Hugh Freeze’s tenure he simply didn’t care about recruiting defensive talent, and the few decent prospects he did sign either haven’t developed or transferred.
Look at the 4-star defensive prospects (according to 247sports.com) they’ve signed from 2014 through 2017.
2014: Safety C.J. Hampton never developed or became a major contributor. DE Garrald McDowell transferred to ULL. DE Breeland Speaks was a hit, but he left early for the NFL. CB Tee Shepard missed most of his one year in Oxford before leaving the team.
2015: DT D.J. Jones was a hit, but as a JUCO prospect only had 2 years of eligibility. CB Tony Bridges was the same story. S Armani Linton eventually moved to RB where he’s buried on the depth chart.
2016: DT Benito Jones has been good when healthy, but has been wracked by injuries. S Deontay Anderson transferred to Houston. CB Jaylon Jones, once the team’s best cover corner, is out for the year with a torn ACL. DE Charles Wiley has played in just 9 games with 2.5 sacks, all of which came against Kent State.
2017: CB D.D. Bowie left the team and is now at Northeast Mississippi Community College. LB Breon Dixon transferred to Nebraska.
And there ya have it, folks. The priority in recruiting seemingly switched to offense almost exclusively after the vaunted 2013 class. The few highly-prized prospects they did sign more often than not failed to work out for one reason or another.
It’s Matt Luke’s fault
Now, the complete lack of depth and talent on defense can’t be blamed entirely on Matt Luke, because it still falls down on Freeze. It’s not Luke’s fault that there was a 6-year NCAA colonoscopy, either, which decimated recruiting. Luke is not totally blameless, however, because after all, he was on staff and one of the top assistants throughout each of the past seven recruiting classes, the last being his first as the full-time head coach.
The lack of talent is easily explainable. One thing that isn’t acceptable or explainable, however, is the severe lack of discipline. This team is poorly coached. Stuff like run fits, using hands, taking proper pursuit angles, wrapping up below the waist and sticking to assignments have nothing to do with talent.
The amount of penalties, which reached a fevered pitch against LSU as the Rebs committed 17 penalties for 167 yards, has absolutely nothing to do with talent. That’s on the coaching staff, and ultimately that’s on Luke. This is where Ole Miss fans really, really get frustrated, because these are the things that could have and should have been remedied by now.
Enough about the defense, let’s move to the perceived strength of the team, the offense.
The unit is absolutely loaded with talent and probably has 3 first-round draft picks. They have an above-average QB, a good RB, electrifying receivers and a stout and veteran offensive line. And boy, can they light up a bad defense. But against the good defenses, the kinds of defenses they regularly face in the SEC, they’ve been awful. Like we mentioned earlier, just 23 combined points against Alabama and LSU, which, considering the talent they have on that side of the ball, is unfathomable, even against elite defenses.
The play-calling has been atrocious, and the offense never seems to take into account the defense they’re playing alongside. It’s either 75-yard bomb or 3-and-out. When your defense is this bad, you can’t run an offense like this. Two perfect examples of the perplexity of the play calling on offense was evident against LSU in the first half.
On the second drive of the game, the Rebels fed their very talented tailback Scottie Phillips, who, when he gets the ball, can pick up chunk yards and provide balance to the aerial attack. On this drive, they feed Phillips the ball 3 times and he runs for 35 yards and is primarily responsible for getting the Rebels down to LSU’s 13. Logically, you’d think, let’s keep feeding Phillips, especially this close to the goal line, right? Instead, 3 consecutive pass attempts, all incomplete, and the Rebels settle for a FG.
Later that half, right before halftime, the Rebels found themselves on a 3rd-and-goal from the 1, 5 seconds remaining. Phillips was averaging 7.16 yards per carry at this point. Incomplete pass. Now it’s 4th down, the Rebels are behind by 25. Do they have faith in their RB and OL to punch it in and make it an 18-point game and go into halftime with some momentum? No. They settle for another FG, as if that would help.
By the end of Phillips fourth carry of the night, which was at the 5:29 mark in the first quarter, he was averaging 9.25 yards per carry. His next carry? With 7:34 left in the second quarter. They literally went almost an entire quarter in the first half without giving the ball to their tailback who was practically averaging a first down per carry.
Luke is a former offensive linemen and line coach — you know at heart he wants to run the ball and win the game up front — so how does he allow this to happen?
It’s going to get worse
Unfortunately, this season is quickly spiraling out of control. The next two games, which were thought to be surefire wins against ULM and Arkansas, are anything but a given. After that? Auburn, South Carolina, Texas A&M, Vandy and Mississippi State. You know there’s not an easy win in there. They should beat the Warhawks this week, but after that I don’t see them favored in any matchups. There’s a very realistic chance the team finishes the season 4-8 and closes out the season on a 6-game losing streak.
As a fan, understandably, you are in full blown meltdown mode right now. You want Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter, AD Ross Bjork, Luke and his entire staff fired. Every day they retain their jobs is a day too late. You think that the quickest way to stop the bleeding is to lop off the head entirely and begin anew.
Well, I don’t think Luke is going anywhere, at least not this year. Even if they finish 4-8. The buyout if he would be fired after this year would be $9 million. That might sound modest for some programs, but it’s too high for Ole Miss, especially when they’re still dealing with financial penalties and lost revenue from the sanctions. Ole Miss wouldn’t be able to afford to fire him and his staff in addition to paying a premium for a new coach and another staff. Ole Miss has money, but not Texas A&M money.
He’ll certainly be shaking up the staff quite a bit, you can count on that. I don’t think there’s a chance DC Wesley McGriff or OC Phil Longo have Oxford addresses next year. Luke will make adjustments to the staff and that will temporarily assuage the fan base for a few months with the promise of change on the field after seeing change off it.
To 2019 … and better days ahead
There’s also a big recruiting class coming up which could further help Luke. The importance of the 2019 recruiting class can’t be overstated, and it’s maybe the most important for the program of the past 20 years. I think they’ll be able to sign a Top 25 class, and that will soothe the fan base even more.
Then we’ll come to 2019, a season in which first round talents like A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf and Greg Little are no longer around, because they’ll almost assuredly go pro (which they absolutely should do, by the way). They’ll be without DaMarkus Lodge, Jordan Ta’amu, Sean Rawlings, Javon Patterson and maybe even Scottie Phillips. They’ll be breaking in a young QB in a new scheme with younger guys at WR, RB and along the OL. The defense can only improve, but it’ll still likely be a porous unit.
The reality is this: 2019 is going to even be worse, my friends.
The bottom line is this: Ole Miss is in the middle of a storm right now, a storm they entered back in 2013 when the NCAA first started investigating. And the storm needs to be ridden out. There’s no quick fix, but it will get better.
That’s the bright side to all of this, is that it will get better. Not this year, and not next, but it will.
Worst case, at least from my view, is that Ole Miss bottoms out this year and next. Recruiting picks up. They can promise early playing time and a chance to start as a freshman in the SEC. If you don’t think that’s appealing to recruits looking for TV time to begin building their NFL resumes, you’re crazy.
And if Luke still hasn’t righted the ship and figured things out after next year, or at least shown promising signs of development and progress, Ole Miss will be able to fire him and afford it. They’ll also be able to afford a new coach, promising a $5 million a year and up salary and a huge pool for assistants, to go along with fantastic facilities and an internationally recognized campus and town. Oh, and the fact that it’s an SEC West job won’t hurt, either.
Ole Miss will be a very appealing job by then. It wasn’t this past year when sanctions were riddling the program (which certainly played a role in their decision to retain Luke).
From my view, those are really the two ways this could play out. Either Luke has figured it out and shown signs of progress, or he’s gone and another coach will have the job with a clean slate to start from.
Now, there’s the sunshine at the end of the storm. It’s a storm right now, no doubt, but fans just need to ride it out, because there’s sunshine at the end of every storm. Better days are on the horizon.