OXFORD, Miss. — With football season approaching quickly, let’s take a look at how difficult the competition will be for the Rebels in 2019. We begin with the toughest teams on the schedule and work our way down to what we expect to be the least difficult.
1) Alabama (Sept. 28, at Tuscaloosa)
The Crimson Tide finished 2018 with an 14-1 record, including wins over Georgia in the SEC Championship game and Oklahoma in the College Football Playoff Semifinal matchup, before ultimately falling short against the Clemson Tigers in the National Championship game.
In the most recent recruiting cycle, Nick Saban, entering his thirteenth season as head coach of the Crimson Tide, signed arguably one of the best recruiting classes during his tenure at Alabama. Until he leaves Tuscaloosa, Saban’s team should remain the toughest on the Rebels’ schedule every single year.
2) LSU (Nov. 16, Oxford)
The Tigers finished with a 10-3 record last season, including a win against UCF in the Fiesta Bowl. Ed Orgeron is in his third full season as head coach of the Tigers and has been able to replicate the same type of success to this point that Les Miles had during his tenure at LSU.
The Tigers are recruiting at a very high level under Orgeron, so don’t be surprised to see the purple and gold continue to be at the very top of the SEC West, competing with Alabama to try and make it to the SEC title game in Atlanta.
Starting quarterback Joe Burrow returns and will be surrounded by a star-studded cast at the skill positions on offense and, as usual, will be joined by a very talented defense. Orgeron has been able to haul in five-star recruits at corner, linebacker, and running back, aligning perfectly with the Tigers’ identify of running the football and providing excellent defensive coverage.
Vegas has the over-under for the Tigers set at 9.5. We are inclined to take the over as it is likely the LSU offense will continue to take another step forward from last season to this season under senior quarterback Joe Burrow.
3) Texas A&M (Oct. 19, Oxford)
The Aggies finished with a 9-4 record, including a win against North Carolina State in the Gator Bowl last season. During head coach Jimbo Fisher’s first season in College Station, he was able to increase the Aggies’ win total by two over Kevin Sumlin’s final season at A&M where the former coach went 7-6.
Fisher hauled in a very impressive recruiting class during the off-season to help fill in some of the gaps on defense that were left behind during Sumlin’s tenure. He also returns starting QB Kellen Mond, who made huge strides last season. We would not be shocked if this team continued to progress on the field with the talent Fisher is accumulating in College Station, but it is worth noting the Aggies’ schedule is quite difficult this fall. A&M has a tough nonconference schedule that begins with Clemson in Week Two. The Aggies will face Georgia for their rotating opponent in the SEC East this season.
Vegas has the over-under set at 8.5 which makes it a tough call. We feel the under is likely the best bet with Clemson, Alabama, Georgia, and LSU on the schedule, especially since all of those are on the road with the exception of the game against the Tide. If the LSU game wasn’t in Baton Rouge, we would be more inclined to take the over, but the odds are against the Aggies walking out of Death Valley with a win — at night on Senior Night.
4) Auburn (Nov. 2, at Auburn)
The Tigers finished with an 8-5 record last season, including a win over Purdue in the Music City Bowl. Gus Malzahn is in his seventh season as head coach which could very well come to a close after this season if things don’t turn around. The Auburn fanbase has grown restless as of late with the lack of wins, especially with the tremendous amount of talent Malzahn has been able to accumulate during his time on The Plains.
For most schools around the country, getting to at least eight wins every year with the occasional better-than-average year spread around would be enough to satisfy the fan base, but Auburn has to deal with comparisons to its neighbor, Alabama, every single year.
Last season was supposed to be Auburn’s year, but there were numerous disruptions inside the locker room that didn’t help the situation much. Some boosters apparently wanted Malzahn gone after last season, but due to the structure of his contract, Malzahn would have been owed 16 million dollars up front and another 16 million dollars spread out over the next several seasons.
The defensive line for the Tigers appears to be the best in the SEC this fall, so there should be reason for optimism for the Auburn faithful. They are going to have a freshman quarterback running the offense, but he will have a veteran offensive line as the Tigers return all their starters from last season. They’ll also have a stable of running backs to work with to help alleviate any pressure from opposing SEC defenses.
Malzahn will call his own plays on offense this fall, so there could be a turnaround on offense if the young quarterbacks can adapt to the rigors of the SEC. The over-under for the Tigers is currently set at 8.5. We would probably go with the under as Alabama, Georgia, and LSU are all more complete teams in the SEC right now. The Tigers will also have to play at Oregon, at Florida, and at Texas A&M. That’s a brutal schedule for anyone, much less a team with an inexperienced signal caller.
5) Mississippi State (Nov. 28, at Starkville)
The Bulldogs finished with an 8-5 record last season after losing to Iowa in the Outback Bowl. Head coach Joe Moorhead is in his second season in Starkville and thus far has been able to maintain the success Dan Mullen built during his tenure there. The Bulldogs notched the No. 1 defense in the country last season from the talent Mullen accumulated during his time as head coach. However, after having three players drafted in the first round of the NFL, there should be somewhat of a drop-off in defensive production from last season.
Moorhead was able to sign a pair of talented in-state defensive linemen to try and help mitigate the loss of Jeffrey Simmons and Montez Sweat on the defensive line. The Bulldogs also signed a JUCO defensive back to try and make up for the loss of DB Johnathan Abram.
Starting quarterback Nick Fitzgerald has graduated, so the Bulldogs will be turning their attention to Keytaon Thompson to lead the team at QB. Fitzgerald struggled during his senior campaign, but the defense was able to keep the Bulldogs in a lot of games last fall. Thompson is going to have to step up the offense for the Bulldogs in order to counteract any potential drop-off in defensive efficiency after losing key players to the NFL.
6) Missouri (Oct. 12, at Columbia)
The Tigers finished 2018 with an 8-5 record after losing to Oklahoma State in the Liberty Bowl. Barry Odom is in his fourth season as head coach and has increased from four to seven to eight wins in his first three seasons at the helm of the Tigers.
This time last year, if you would have asked how difficult this game would be for the Rebels in 2019, we would have called it a 50-50 game due the departure of veteran quarterback Drew Lock who was selected by the Denver Broncos with the 42nd pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. However, the Tigers ended up the beneficiary of perhaps the biggest gift from the NCAA Transfer Portal this off-season—quarterback Kelly Bryant.
The 6-foot-4 inch, 220-pound Bryant led the Clemson Tigers to a 12-2 record and an ACC Championship before losing to Alabama in the semi-finals of the CFP at the Sugar Bowl. He is a graduate transfer and is eligible to play immediately.
Missouri returns a veteran offensive line as well as several other key playmakers on offense to help complement Bryant at quarterback, although they do have a few question marks scattered around the defense.
The main concern, however, with the Tigers will be how they respond to their post-season bowl ban. As long as they can maintain their focus on playing each game and not becoming discouraged at no postseason plans, they will still be a force to reckon with for many teams around the SEC. If the Tigers were eligible for post-season play, it would not be a stretch to image this program in the Top 25.
7) Memphis (August 31, at Memphis)
The Tigers finished with an 8-6 record last season after losing to No. 8 UCF in the AAC Championship Game and to Wake Forest in the Birmingham Bowl. Mike Norvell is in his fourth season as the head coach of Memphis after taking over for Justin Fuente. Norvell has been able to sustain the success Fuente began, and his team is projected to win the AAC with a 10-2 record in the regular season. The Tigers are actually favored in every regular season game in 2019 by at least a touchdown—except against the Rebels, where they are a 6.2-point favorite.
One of the biggest stars Fuente has found since he began his tenure in Memphis has been Darrell Henderson out of South Panola. Henderson rushed for over 2,000 yards last season and was selected by the Los Angeles Rams with the 70th pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. The Tigers will miss the rushing yards generated by Henderson and Tony Pollard, their number three back on the roster.
However, Memphis returns Patrick Taylor Jr. who carried the ball almost as much as Henderson did, but did so at 5.39 yards per carry instead of the whopping 8.92 yards per carry from Henderson. Redshirt freshman Kenny Gainwell is going to be able to provide a little bit of a different look at running back for the Tigers as a scat back.
Damonte Coxie, a 6-foot-3-inch, 200-pound receiver notched 72 catches for 1,174 yards to lead the Tigers last season. He’ll be joined by senior quarterback Brady White. The 6-foot-3-inch, 205-pound veteran QB threw for 3,296 yards, 26 touchdowns and only nine interceptions for the season. The Tigers did lose three veteran offensive linemen who combined for over 120 starts along the offensive line last season.
It is worth noting that Coach Norvell had to replace both his offensive and defensive coordinators during the off-season. We expect the Tigers to be able to move the ball effectively on offense both through the air and on the ground; however, we don’t think Memphis will be as efficient on the ground as it was last season.
The Tigers do return almost the entire defensive side of the ball from last season. They started a lot of sophomores in 2018 which will help them show overall improvement on defense this fall. This is not a team the Rebels can sleep on and still expect to walk out of the Liberty Bowl with a victory.
8) California (Sept. 21, Oxford)
The Golden Bears finished with a 7-6 record after losing to TCU in the Cheez-it Bowl last season. Justin Wilcox is in his third season as the head coach at California where he has seen steady improvement since taking over the 5-7 program from former head coach Sonny Dykes.
The Rebels lost to the Golden Bears out in Berkeley, California in 2017. Thankfully, Ole Miss won’t have to face RB Patrick Laird this fall in Oxford. Laird, the captain for the Golden Bears last fall, had a combined 106 all-purpose yards and a touchdown in the win over the Rebels.
Cal might be on the verge of fixing its struggles at quarterback. Redshirt sophomore QB Chase Garbers is expected to be named the starter for the Golden Bears after having settled into the starting role midway through last season. He threw for 1,506 yards and 14 touchdowns, but due to inexperience also tallied 10 interceptions and was ineffective inside the red zone. UCLA transfer QB Devon Modster is Garbers’ competition, but we feel Garbers will end up being declared the starter come fall camp after getting some very valuable in-game experience last season and continuing to improve during the offseason.
The Golden Bears also return a stout defense this fall, one that led the PAC-12 with fewest yards per play allowed at 4.6.
9) Vanderbilt (Oct. 5, Oxford)
The Commodores are coming off a 6-7 overall record in 2018, finishing off with a loss to Baylor in the Texas Bowl. Vanderbilt will have to replace veteran quarterback Kyle Shumur, and the Commodores will most likely take a step back this fall without the veteran signal caller on the field.
ESPN’s Football Power Index actually ranks Vanderbilt ahead of Memphis and California at 51st, compared to 54th and 55th, respectively. Vegas has the over-under set for 5 wins, and we tend to think it will be tough for Vandy to match its record from last year. We are inclined to take the under given the Commodores’ schedule and the loss of their most efficient starting quarterback in recent memory in Nashville.
10) Arkansas (Sept. 7, Oxford)
The last few seasons have been rough for the Razorbacks; they finished 4-8 under Bret Bielema in 2017, and then took a step back in 2018 under Chad Morris, going 2-10 with a couple of stunning nonconference losses to Colorado State and North Texas.
The Razorbacks should see improvement in Year Two under Morris with the addition of transfer quarterbacks Ben Hicks and Nick Starkel. Morris also signed a Top 25 recruiting class in 2019, and it will be interesting to see how many true freshman signees get significant minutes early on during this upcoming season. We would be surprised to see anything less than at least a record of 4-8 for the Razorbacks this fall.
11) New Mexico State (Nov. 9, Oxford)
Under seventh-year head coach Doug Martin, the Aggies took a step back last season with a 3-9 overall record after finishing at 7-6 in 2017 where they won their first bowl game in 57 years. The Aggies are projected to only improve in the win column by one game this season to 4-8, which even then might be a stretch after glancing at the team’s upcoming schedule for 2019.
12) Southeastern Louisiana (Sept. 14, Oxford)
The Lions are the only FCS team the Rebels face this upcoming season, so that makes it easy to put Southeastern at the bottom of our list of most difficult opponents for 2019. The Lions finished 8th in the Southland conference last season with a record of 4-7. This one should be a walk in the park for the Rebels.