Nothing is better than the start of college football. Fall camp is wrapping up, starting lineups are being set, most everyone who fancies themselves an analyst has made all the predictions they plan to make, a dozen or so fanbases have collectively decided this is their year to make a playoff run. All that's left to do is wait for the heartbreak. Which will occur for either FSU or Ole Miss on Labor Day night.
Laquon Treadwell, Laremy Tunsil, Robert Nkemdiche. Three first-rounders gone from the Ole Miss starting lineup. The rebels return 10 starters: five on offense and five on defense. Chad Kelly made some plays last year though, and Hugh Freeze has collected some real talent. If all you want is a worthlessly reductive summary of what the Seminoles are looking at, I suggest you memorize the four previous sentences and feel overly confident in an FSU win. Otherwise, let's look a little deeper at just what FSU is going to be facing next Monday night.
Ole Miss passing will probably still be great
In 2015, the Rebels leaned very heavily on the pass and did so to great effect. Make what jokes you will about the efficacy of using a cornerback's helmet for long touchdown passes, but Ole Miss ended the year with the second-best passing game in the nation per S&P+. Last year, the Rebels were sixth among Power-Five teams in passing yards per game (334.7). The five teams ahead of them included three air-raid schools (Texas Tech, Washington, and Cal) and two other Big12 schools (TCU and Oklahoma St.), which faced notoriously porous defenses. To make matters worse, they did so with a balance of both big playmaking (10th among P5 schools in passes of 30+ yards) and efficiency (2nd nationally in passing-attempt success rate).
Ole Miss brings back one of the most prolific passers in the country in Chad Kelly. Last year, five Power-Five QBs threw for 300 yards per game, and three of those were pure air raid offenses. One was TCU's Trevone Boykin, and the other was Kelly. Among returning P5 QBs, only Baker Mayfield and Mason Rudolph have a higher YPA. Probably the biggest clash of strengths in Monday night's game will come with the Rebels trying to move the ball through the air; last year, FSU finished fourth, nationally, against FBS teams, giving up 5.6 yards per passing attempt; no school Ole Miss faced in 2015 was in the top-10.
One of the less-educated assumptions made about Ole Miss this offseason was that its receiving group will be significantly weaker with Treadwell gone. It is true that with Markell Pack out for the game, the Rebs will be playing with only 42.3% of their receiving yards from 2015. Ole Miss lost a first-round quality possession receiver in Laquon Treadwell (1,165 yards, 9.6 per target) but have a quality possession receiver to step into that role in Damore'ea Stringfellow (503 yards, 8.7 per target). They lose big-play threat Cody Core (644 yards, 11.3 per target), but return a huge-play threat in Quincy Adeboyejo (604 yards, 10.8 per target). A subplot of the FSU secondary matchup to look out for will be Adeboyejo, who is eighth among all returning P5 receivers in receptions of 40+ yards (five last year), despite being only fourth on his team in targets, matching up against an FSU secondary that was sixth nationally in 2015 with only four 40+ yard passes allowed all year.
Topping off the returning receiving group is Evan Engram, last year's second-team All-SEC tight end (464 yards, 8.4 per target). The loss of Treadwell will undeniably set them back, as there is simply no first-round receiving talent left on the roster; but with the experience they have returning, the bigger roles should not be difficult to replace. Throw in some prospectively awesome quarterback play, and this team still will be easily the second biggest test of the Florida State secondary this year.
Ole Miss rushing will probably still be fine
Ole Miss' offensive strengths were clearly in the passing game last year, but they were sufficiently complemented on the ground by a trio of running backs: Jaylen Walton (730 yards, 5.1ypc), Akeem Judd (425 yards, 5.4 YPC), and Jordan Wilkins (379 yards, 5.3 YPC), and an effective mix of option plays for Chad Kelly (7.2 per rush, removing sack yardage). Walton and Wilkins are gone; but the value added replacing them was not high enough to suggest Ole Miss' fresh 2016 rotation will take much of a step back.
The ground game, overall, finished 24th nationally, functioning mostly as a dependable way to move the ball (47.1% rushing success rate, ranked 23rd nationally). Ole Miss' purpose on the ground was clear: keep the running game consistent enough that defenses can't ignore it, so that the passing game has room to gash opponents for big yardage. Ole Miss didn't do much in the way of threatening home runs on the ground (91st nationally in explosive run offense), nor do I expect them to against an FSU defense, the identity of which hinges on preventing big plays (one 30+ yard rush allowed in 2015, good for first, nationally).
It's worth noting that Ole Miss struggled majorly in short-yardage success rate (127th nationally), and was stuffed at the line 22.2% of the time (101st nationally), but Florida State's defense has some improving to do to take advantage of those weaknesses. It ranked 78th nationally in preventing successful rushing plays and 91st nationally in defensive stuff-rate in 2015. Those Ole Miss figures, though, are as much a consequence of the running backs as they are of the offensive-line. And speaking of offensive line play...
The offensive line could be problematic
All of the aforementioned analysis could shift drastically depending on the quality of line play Ole Miss brings in 2016. Despite technically losing all five starters from last year's roster, the Rebels still return 38% of last year's starts due to a plague of injuries across the line. Even with those starts factored in, Ole Miss is still 107th nationally in total starts returning, leaving them some major concern regarding the quality of play they can expect to start the season. A recent Jeff Gray article from RedCupRebellion highlights the problem even more:
So while the passing offensive skill may be elite or near-elite, and the running group may be perfectly functional, there is a nonzero chance that both will be significantly hampered by an FSU defense that returns 72.8% of its tackles for loss and 76.5% of its sacks.
The front seven has holes to fill
|Fadol Brown (injured)||DE||SR||23.5||4.5||1||1|
The 2015 Ole Miss run defense was quite good, finishing 17th nationally per S&P+, and only allowing 3.36ypc by opposing FBS backs, good for 12th nationally. They were fifth-best nationally at stopping short-yardage situations (49.1%), and not outside the top 35 in any major statistical category. They were extremely stout in the red zone, finishing third best nationally with 9 total rushing TDs allowed last year.
Along the defensive line, there is plenty of reason for optimism in spite of Nkemdiche's departure. Returning defensive tackles Speaks, Jones, and senior Isaac Gross, who missed all of 2015 with a knee injury (28.5 tackles, 8TFL in 2014), should combine for an even more dominant interior than the one we saw in 2015. The Rebels planned to round out the line with Marquis Haynes (second-team all-SEC) and rising senior Fadol Brown on the edges. Haynes was incredible as a sophomore with 37.5 combined sacks, tackles for loss, QB hurries, and forced fumbles.
Losing Fadol Brown for this game may be a big setback for the Rebels, who were high on starting talent but low at depth for ends. At worst the drop-off to Brown's replacement should still render this unit collectively as good as they were in 2015. Behind that, the linebackers are probably the biggest question mark for this defense, and the lack of proven playmakers who can create havoc or provide stout run defense will likely be the reason if this front seven as a whole takes a step back.
The pass defense may take some time to gel, and that's good news for Francois & friends
Passing defense, much like the run D, was plenty good enough 2015 to let the offense win the games, having no major holes. It ranked 23rd overall in S&P+ and finished 20th best in yards per attempt allowed by opposing QB's at 6.3. If you wanted to look for a weakness, the rebels ranked 61st nationally with 17 30+ yard pass plays allowed against FBS opponents, which is not exactly a shameful number.
More interestingly, Ole Miss put a lot of faith in their secondary last year: 10.0% of all defensive snaps the Rebels took in 2015 resulted in a sack, tackle for loss, interception, or pass breakup by a defensive back, which put them first nationally in defensive-back havoc rate.
The two leaders of that 2015 group - Mike Hilton & Trae Elston - who combined for a whopping 52 of the four combined aforementioned stats, are gone. Both starting corners (Webster, Bridges) return, but the quality of safety play is a very real question mark. It could be partly answered if nickleback Tony Conner (53.5 tackles, 9TFL in 2014) returns to his prior form after losing most of 2015 with a meniscus tear, something that may not happen by early September.
From all defensive positions, Ole Miss returns 48.8% of their 2015 combined sacks and QB hurries. Given the assumed development of an FSU offensive line that returns all five starters, there is reason to believe Francois will have time to throw. Inexperience from the secondary could present an opportunity for an FSU offense that returns 100% of its 2015 receiving yards to exploit this Ole Miss team early and often through the air, it's very possible this game boils down to whether the redshirt freshman quarterback will be able to take it.