Is Matt Luke the answer for Ole Miss going forward?
Ole Miss coach Matt Luke inherited a program that was gutted to the core by the previous coaching staff and administration. No matter the success the program has accounted over the past 10 years, Luke was left holding the mess after the 2017 fallout from losing its head coach and the NCAA investigation.
As you can imagine, the baseline numbers that have followed are pedestrian and many would describe as poor. I’m sure the truth lies in the middle.
This season has been one of close calls. The Rebels (3-6, 2-4 SEC) will look back on the Memphis, California, Missouri, Texas A&M and Auburn games and always wonder what if a few plays had gone its way. Those losses were by 5, 8, 11, 7 and 6 points, respectively, and a combined 37 points.
I find it hard to argue that Luke and his entire coaching staff have improved as the season has progressed.
But has the program improved enough? And more important, is Luke capable of taking it where it needs to go?
The Matt Luke File
The Gulfport native took over for the 2017 season when Hugh Freeze was fired. Frankly, the coaching staff and players were all put into place by Freeze and Luke steered the ship. The 6-6 season ended with a win in the Egg Bowl. Due to NCAA sanctions, the Rebels were not eligible for a bowl game.
Luke was named the head coach by then athletic director Ross Bjork.
The following season, Ole Miss finished 5-7 but was noticeably worse, falling to Alabama by 55 points, LSU by 29 and Mississippi State by 32.
While this season the win total might not be as high, the effort and execution are simply improved. The losses are closer and the defense is the best it has been since 2014.
As it stands, the overall numbers are sobering. Under Luke, the Rebels are 3-13 against SEC West opponents, with 2 wins coming against Arkansas and 1 win against Mississippi State.
Simply put, those numbers have to improve.
The youth movement
I’m not sure you will find a team that plays more freshmen on offense than the Rebels. Many are playing because of ability and not purely out of necessity. Both quarterbacks Matt Corrall and John Rhys Plumlee have played the entire season at the position.
A wide receiver group that has struggled overall does have a few bright spots in freshmen Jonathan Mingo, Dannis Jackson and Jaden Jackson. All 3 have played early because they are better than the veterans.
Rounding out the offense at both running back and offensive line, both are heavy with freshmen. At running back, Jerrion Ealy and Snoop Conner have carried the load as of late, due to senior running back Scottie Phillips being injured. Nick Broeker, Bryce Ramsey and Jalen Cunningham have all played this season with Broeker contributing heavily this fall.
There is an optimism in the program and it stems from the offense being so young.
The coordinator hires
This offseason, Luke hired Rich Rodriguez as offensive coordinator and Mike MacIntyre as defensive coordinator. The hires were celebrated, but it is now a mixed bag of emotions.
MacIntyre has transformed the defense into one of the best in recent history. Again, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. The Rebels are No. 91 in the country in total defense, but last season they were 114.
They’re allowing 26.2 points per game — almost a 10-point improvement over last year.
It’s a bend-don’t-break defense that has kept the offense in games and that is due simply to MacIntyre and his leadership.
As for the offense, it started out like one that was going to continue to improve. Freshman Matt Corral began the season and was injured during the Cal game.
He hasn’t been the same.
Plumlee has been brilliant and erratic. While Ole Miss’ rushing numbers are up, currently No. 1 in the SEC and 17th in the country, Plumlee’s lack of passing ability has been an obstacle Ole Miss cannot get over.
The Rebels have lost 3 consecutive games by an average of 8 points to Missouri, Texas A&M and Auburn.
Those losses sit squarely on the offense.
Rodriguez has left the Rebel fans scratching their head numerous times this fall.
The tale of the tape
With no permanent athletic director in place and a new chancellor, Luke probably will be given another season to reach the postseason. According to many around the program, chancellor Glenn Boyce wants to name a new AD as soon as Thanksgiving. In regards to the 2019 season, the hay is in the barn with only 3 games left. Home games against New Mexico State and LSU, Ole Miss is probably splitting the two with the Egg Bowl a toss-up.
The bigger question will be attendance on Saturday against the Aggies. Ole Miss can afford its fans to be angry, but they can ill afford the base to be apathetic.
With the support of Luke dwindling, this is a major cause of concern for the new AD and its entire athletic administration.