OXFORD, Miss. — I’m just going to be frank about this. I believe Ole Miss will beat Memphis in the Liberty Bowl Saturday.
The Rebels have superior talent to Memphis on both sides of the ball. This isn’t a Memphis team that has another gem in Darrell Henderson who’s going to be drafted in the 2nd round. Yes, they do return a 1,000-yard-back in Patrick Taylor, and he is very talented, but the Tigers no longer have that two-headed monster in the backfield.
It will be interesting to see what type of numbers the 6-foot-3, 227-pound Taylor puts up this year now that he is the feature back in their offense. I will also add I watched running back Kenny Gainwell in person a few years ago as he won the MVP of the Southern Elite Combine, and he should be a nice change of pace RB for the Tigers this season.
So knowing the Tigers have Taylor and Gainwell at their disposal, why do I still think the Rebs win this game?
Ole Miss defensive line
Well, the defensive front seven for Ole Miss is very strong this season. The Rebels’ defensive line outweighs the Tigers’ offensive line by an average of roughly 30 pounds per person. That’s a lot of strength coming at a re-tooled Memphis offensive line that, like Ole Miss, is replacing three starters.
Ole Miss linebackers
With MoMo Sanogo, Donta Evans, Lakia Henry, Willie Hibbler and Jacquez Jones, the Ole Miss inside linebackers look incredibly deep and should be able to rotate bodies in and out throughout the entirety of the game. The front two outside linebackers, Sam Williams and Qaadir Sheppard (even with a club on his hand), both look very impressive. I fully believe the Rebels will be able to limit the Tigers’ rushing attack.
The Rebels are also more experienced from a coaching standpoint. Both teams replaced their offensive and defensive coordinators this offseason, but you would be hard-pressed to name another pair of coordinators in the country, together on one staff, with more combined experience than the two that reside in Oxford in offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez and defensive coordinator Mike MacIntyre. These two have decades of experience upon which to draw, and this can only benefit a young Ole Miss team.
Another point worth noting is the “eye test” of this year’s team. Simply put, they look WAY different than the team I saw take the field in Oxford two seasons ago under former offensive coordinator Phil Longo and defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff. This is something I really want to emphasize. With more experienced coordinators, I believe the team the Rebels fielded last season could have won seven or eight games, rather than the five they actually recorded.
Watching Coach MacIntyre oversee the defense at Tuesday’s practice drove home to me how well-coached this year’s unit is. I don’t believe you’ll see last season’s busted coverages due to players not knowing their assignments. This team is very vocal and does a great job of adjusting to the offense pre-snap.
Back in June, I thought this defense could be a top 70 ranked unit in the country. But now, after I have watched the three JUCO transfers (Sam Williams, Lakia Henry, and SS Jon Haynes) earn starting roles on defense, and seen the increased depth on the defensive line and at linebacker, I honestly believe this is a defense capable of being in the Top 50 and somewhere between seven and ten in the SEC. The coaches have transitioned the unit from the 4-2-5 to the 3-4 and it seems to really suit the personnel.
Don’t be surprised if you come away from the Memphis game more impressed with how big of a change there has been in the defense instead of just how well the offense is doing after replacing so much talent from a year ago.
Vegas got the line wrong in this one. The 5.5 point underdog Rebels will win this game outright.
Final score prediction: Ole Miss, 35-17