Editor’s note: Our annual Crystal Ball series continues with Ole Miss and the SEC West. Coming Sunday: Texas A&M. Starting Monday: SEC East.

Smell ya later, bowl ban.

No longer strapped with recruiting penalties from the Hugh Freeze era, Ole Miss is entering 2019 with the possibility of a bowl berth for the first time since 2016. Granted, the Rebels haven’t reached the postseason since the 2015 season.

So what now? Does that mean without the looming cloud over the program we should expect Matt Luke to lead Ole Miss back to SEC relevancy?

Not so fast. It’s still a team that ranks dead last in percentage of returning offensive production. And that’s with a defense that was a nightmare in recent memory. Oh, and Ole Miss will have to do that as a member of the toughest division in college football.

Best of luck, Matt Luke.

2018 record: 5-7 (1-7), 6th in SEC West

Matt Luke’s great experiment

I don’t think it can be overstated how rare it was for Luke to do what he did. That is, take a couple of recently-fired Power 5 head coaches and make them his coordinators. The concern about egos in the room was clearly nonexistent for Luke. That’s a bold move for someone who’s still trying to get his footing as a head coach.

Rich Rodriguez was given command of the offense. How that clashes with Luke over the course of the season remains to be seen, but for now, it sounds like there’s not any power struggle. Then again if there were, would we really know? Probably not.

And with Mike MacIntyre on board, the big question is how Ole Miss’ defensive issues are going to be solved. Can the Rebels actually stop the run? Will they be able to stay on the field with SEC contenders? This defense capped Ole Miss’ ceiling at 7 wins the past 2 years.

Luke hired Rodriguez and MacIntyre because he realizes what’s at stake in 2019. He has a new athletic director and a fan base that’s gone 3 consecutive years without a bowl game. If there were ever a time to make a big push, it’s now.

Matt Corral is the new face of the program

Speaking of bold moves by Luke, sending a redshirt freshman quarterback to SEC Media Days is certainly that. Corral was a major get for Ole Miss after he flipped his commitment from Florida following the Dan Mullen hiring. Go figure that now Corral is playing with someone like Rodriguez, who specializes in the mobile quarterback department.

I’m super interested in the Corral-RichRod dynamic. Both are fiery personalities. Will there be some sideline confrontations? Or will we see the perfect match of a couple of guys who just understand each other? That remains to be seen.

Corral admitted he let his emotions get the best of him when he was involved in the Egg Bowl melee last year, but at the same time, that’s who he is. He sticks up for his teammates and he’s not afraid to jaw. There’s a time and a place for that. If Corral can use that to his advantage, this Ole Miss offense won’t fall off like the lack of returning production stat suggests it will.

The imminent run defense improvement

I mean, it just has to be better. Only 3 Power 5 teams allowed more rushing yards per game (221) than the Rebels last year. The year before that, Ole Miss surrendered 245 rushing yards per game.

But with Wesley McGriff gone and MacIntyre in, there’s hope that the new 3-4 scheme can lead a more respectable run defense. Why? The 2016 Associated Press Coach of the Year had much more run defense success at Colorado than Ole Miss had in recent memory:

  • 2016 — 149.7 yards/game
  • 2017 — 208.3 yards/game
  • 2018 — 146.5 yards/game

Colorado struggled last year, but at least the Buffaloes were in the top half of the country stopping the run. This Ole Miss team will have more talent to work with in that department. The question is how it’ll translate in 2019. The staff is optimistic that the 3-4 scheme better fits the personnel.

The good news is that with the likes Benito Jones, Qaadir Sheppard and Josiah Coatney back with leading tackler Mohamed Sanogo, Ole Miss has a much better chance of at least flirting with run game defense mediocrity.

Game-by-game predictions

Week 1: at Memphis (L)

I’m going to catch a lot of heat for this, but this is more about my belief in Memphis. I have the Tigers getting the Group of 5 bid to a New Year’s 6 Bowl because of having offensive weapons like Brady White, Patrick Taylor and Damonte Coxie. The Tigers rank 7th in America in percentage of returning production from a team that averaged more than 520 yards per game last year. I think an inexperienced Ole Miss offense struggles to keep up with that pace on the road.

Week 2: vs. Arkansas (L)

Wait, seriously? An 0-2 start? Last year, Chad Morris’ squad nearly beat Ole Miss and that was with a team that had Jordan Ta’amu and A.J. Brown. Even though the Rebels will likely be favored at home, I expect an improved Arkansas squad to establish some offensive balance with Rakeem Boyd and Trey Knox making big plays. This turns into a shootout and Ole Miss comes out on the wrong end.

Week 3: vs. Southeastern Louisiana (W)

Against an FCS squad that won 4 games as a member of the Southland Conference? Yeah, Scottie Phillips and Jerrion Ealy should go off.

Week 4: vs. California (W)

This is an interesting early-season test for Ole Miss’ offense. Justin Wilcox is one of the country’s better defensive-minded coaches, and he’ll return 78% of the production from a group that ranked No. 22 in scoring last year. But maybe it’s something about a team traveling across the country that has me wondering if Ole Miss will come out with its best offensive start of the young season.

Week 5: at Alabama (L)

It’s hard for me to erase last year’s beatdown in Oxford. I witnessed it and could confirm it was every bit as bad as the scoreboard suggested. In Tuscaloosa, I don’t think Tua Tagovailoa has quite the game that he did last year. But Ole Miss will probably still see a healthy amount of Najee Harris and Trey Sanders to make this one a blowout.

Week 6: vs. Vanderbilt (L)

In a weird turn of events, Vanderbilt’s skill position weapons excite me more than Ole Miss’. Strange year, 2019. Until we see the improvements of the run defense, it’s tough to project that unit shutting down Ke’Shawn Vaughn, who racked up 127 yards in a win against Ole Miss last year. The best bet for this game? Take the over.

Week 7: at Mizzou (L)

Mizzou might be in a position that Ole Miss is all too familiar with — trying to stay motivated while facing a bowl ban. Whether it gets upheld or not, Mizzou still should have enough offensive firepower to take care of business at home against Ole Miss. If Kelly Bryant can pick apart that Ole Miss secondary in the first half, it could be a long day in Columbia.

Week 8: vs. Texas A&M (L)

In order for Ole Miss to beat an SEC team in 2019, I feel like it’s going to have to come against a relatively one-dimensional offense. I don’t think A&M follows that blueprint. Even without Trayveon Williams, I expect the Aggies to be balanced and high-powered offensively. Ole Miss’ only hope is if A&M is banged up after a hard-fought game against Alabama. But I’d still expect Mike Elko’s defense to give the Rebels problems in the run game.

Week 9: Bye

Week 10: at Auburn (L)

Both teams are expected to start a redshirt freshman or a true freshman at quarterback (Corral already has the gig while Auburn is deciding between Joey Gatewood and Bo Nix). Will we be able to tell? I don’t think so. But will I be able to tell that the Tigers are absolutely nasty on the defensive line? Definitely.

Week 11: vs. New Mexico State (W)

After 6 consecutive games against Power 5 teams, Ole Miss’ offense finally feasts on some Group of 5 cooking. Oh, NMSU is actually an FBS Independent? My bad. After 6 consecutive games against Power 5 teams, Ole Miss’ offense finally feasts on some “Independent” cooking. That just sounds weird.

Week 12: vs. LSU (L)

If Ole Miss still had A.J. Brown, DaMarkus Lodge, D.K. Metcalf and Dawson Knox, I’d love to see another matchup against the LSU secondary. But those guys aren’t back and nearly all of that LSU secondary that shut down those guys are back. That’s daunting for the Rebels.

Week 13: Bye

Week 14: at Mississippi State (W)

Yes, an upset. Stunning, right? Well, I realize it doesn’t matter that the road team won 4 consecutive games and I think that MSU is and will be the better team. But sure, let’s call an upset because if a young Ole Miss team that has nothing to lose is playing in this game without any pre-NFL distractions, that road trend could continue. But that’ll only happen if Corral can avoid the post-touchdown fights in the end zone. I think he’ll mature that way and as a player in RichRod’s offense.

2019 projection: 4-8 (1-7, 7th in SEC West)


I like Luke. A lot. I respect the job he did and think that given the circumstances — scholarship losses, recruiting restrictions, looming NCAA cloud, 2-year bowl ban, etc. — it actually could have been much worse. I give him a lot of credit for keeping some of the offensive players around and involved when many more could have left.

But with a new athletic director and a short, fireable contract, I feel like a 4-win season would end Luke’s time in Oxford. That would be unfortunate because this is his dream job and in better circumstances, he probably could have succeeded.

Maybe Luke still will succeed. Maybe Corral and Ealy will take the college football world by storm and Ole Miss will become instantly fun with RichRod on board. And maybe MacIntyre can just get the defense to average and the Rebels wildly surpass my low expectations.

For now, though, I don’t think this is going to be the “storm is over” year that Ole Miss fans are hoping for.