Ole Miss football: The 10 most critical questions entering camp
Ole Miss is coming off its first 10-win regular season, and Lane Kiffin has the program on the rise as he prepares for his 3rd season.
The Rebels lost several key players,but brought in a bunch of transfers. And Kiffin had to replace key members of his coaching staff.
So there is uncertainty surrounding the team as the 2022 season approaches.
Here are the 10 most critical questions entering camp:
1. How long will it take everyone to get acquainted?
The Rebels have a newcomer as one of their co-offensive coordinators, another newcomer as one of their co-defensive coordinators and a new special teams coordinator.
They lost 13 starters from last season’s Sugar Bowl team — 7 on offense and 6 on defense.
It appears that Kiffin and his staff did a nice job of finding adequate replacements, but that’s a whole lot of getting acquainted, adjusting and learning that has to happen during preseason camp.
Some of those challenges could spill over into the season, which begins Sept. 3 with a home game against Troy.
2. Can Ole Miss mitigate the loss of Matt Corral?
No one expects USC transfer Jaxson Dart or returning Rebels backup Luke Altmyer to be as good as Corral was.
But Ole Miss has a lot of talent surrounding whoever starts at quarterback, so neither will need to match Corral’s productivity in order for the team to be successful.
Still, the Rebels can’t afford to have a precipitous dropoff at the quarterback position, and right now there’s no way of knowing how big the dropoff will be.
3. Can the offense be as balanced as it was last season?
That’s going to be a challenge — especially without Corral, not to mention wide receivers Dontario Drummond and Braylon Sanders as well as running backs Jerrion Ealy and Snoop Conner.
The Rebels were No. 3 in the SEC in both rushing offense and passing offense and finished 4th in scoring (33.4 points per game) in 2021.
Ole Miss still has talented skill players and an experienced offensive line. But the balance and overall productivity will be difficult to recreate if it becomes run-heavy while waiting for the new quarterback to settle in.
4. Can Zach Evans do in the SEC what he did in the Big 12?
The Rebels are counting on TCU transfer Zach Evans to lead the running game, and there is good reason to think he’s up to the task.
The former 5-star recruit led the Horned Frogs with 684 yards and scored 5 touchdowns in 6 games last season before being injured. He has averaged 7.3 yards per carry in 15 career games.
Those are very impressive numbers in a Power 5 conference, but it remains to be seen how well they’ll translate to the SEC.
5. Can the offense prevail in shootouts?
The Rebels ranked 6th in the country last season by gaining an average of 492.5 yards per game — and they should be very productive once again.
But if the ceiling for the offense is lower than it was last season, then shootouts could be problematic. For instance, they needed 52 points to beat Arkansas by a point last season.
The possibility of shootouts brings us to …
6. Is the defense going to be a problem?
Ole Miss allowed an average of just 24.7 points in 2021, but it lost 6 defensive starters and 8 of its top 12 tacklers.
Additionally, an inordinate number of takeaways helped mask below-average stats in yards allowed.
The Rebels were 8th in the SEC in passing yards allowed (230.0 per game), 11th in total yards allowed (420.4) and 12th in rushing yards allowed (190.4).
7. Can the Rebels duplicate that success at creating turnovers?
The defensive concerns likely will go away if the Rebels can take the ball away as effectively as they did last season.
They forced 21 turnovers last season, which was tied for 2nd most in the conference.
They were plus-9 for the season and had a negative margin in just 2 games — the Egg Bowl victory against Mississippi State and the Sugar Bowl loss to Baylor.
Being even or plus in turnovers for 11 consecutive games like last season won’t be easy to duplicate.
But it sure would help.
8. Are there enough linebackers?
Ole Miss is going to count on a bunch of inexperienced linebackers to be ready to compete in the SEC.
It has just 2 linebackers who were contributors last season, though it added transfer Troy Brown, who’s stepping up in class after being a 3-time All-MAC player at Central Michigan.
The linebackers might be fine, but there’s no way to know that until they start playing games, especially conference games. The first SEC game is Oct. 1 against Kentucky in Oxford.
9. Can they make the Alabama game an SEC West showdown?
The Rebels host Alabama on Nov. 12.
It’s possible that game will have major implications for the division championship. But it’s also a long way away.
The pre-conference schedule — Troy, Central Arkansas, at Georgia Tech and Tulsa — is manageable, and the pre-Alabama conference schedule — Kentucky, at Vanderbilt, Auburn, at LSU — isn’t terribly challenging until a trip to Texas A&M the game before the Crimson Tide arrive in Oxford.
So Ole Miss has an opportunity to survive early growing pains, then position itself to stay in the SEC West hunt for what would be one of the biggest games in Oxford in a while.
10. Can Ole Miss sustain success?
The Rebels finished 2nd in the West and No. 11 in the final AP poll last season.
But this season will be a good indicator of whether Kiffin is building a consistent contender in the West.
Last season was nice. But sustainable success comes with building a program that can reload after experiencing the losses the Rebels have experienced since last season — and answering nearly all summer questions positively in the fall.