OXFORD — For the Ole Miss football team, there’s been one inescapable narrative all summer: Despite being a Power 5 team from college football’s most prestigious conference, the Rebels find themselves as underdogs in the season opener against Memphis.
At SEC Media Days, both quarterback Matt Corral and linebacker MoMo Sanogo said they’ve taped the betting lines to their lockers. Offensive lineman Royce Newman said his position coach, Jack Bicknell Jr., mentions the underdog status to his players every day. And tight end Jason Pellerin said he can sense his teammates are practicing with a “chip on [their] shoulders” believing the national expectation is for the Rebels to lose.
Let’s take a look at a few reasons why Memphis is the favorite and analyze if those reasons are valid.
1. Memphis plays well at home
There’s no ignoring this one: In Mike Norvell’s three years as Memphis’ head coach, the Tigers are 18-3 in regular season home games. This stretch includes Power 5 wins against UCLA in 2017 and Kansas in 2016. In both cases, the Tigers scored more than 40 points.
Ole Miss, meanwhile, hasn’t won a true road game since the 2017 Egg Bowl.
Does the narrative hold up? Yeah. Even before the Norvell era began, Memphis was tough to beat at home. The Rebels lost at Memphis when they last visited the Liberty Bowl in 2015, and that Ole Miss team later won the Sugar Bowl.
2. Ole Miss and Memphis in 2018
Here’s the simplest rationale of them all: Oddsmakers believe Memphis just has a better team.
The Tigers won eight games last season, posting the No. 7 scoring offense in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Of Memphis’ six losses last year, three were by a total of five points. The Tigers also lost twice to Central Florida (12-1) – 31-30 in the regular season and 56-41 in the American Athletic Conference championship game.
As for Ole Miss? The Rebels lost five in a row to end the season, finishing with a 5-7 record. After the disappointing campaign, the Rebels parted ways with defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff, and offensive coordinator Phil Longo left to accept the same position at North Carolina.
Does the narrative hold up? Sort of. Memphis definitely had a better record than Ole Miss last year. But last year is the past, and both teams have drastically different rosters this season. While Memphis is returning a little bit more production, the Tigers also have new offensive and defensive coordinators. Recent history is always a good indicator of success, but for two teams with a lot of new coaches and new starters, the past might be just that.
3. Memphis offense vs. Ole Miss defense
Even with a new coordinator, Memphis’ offense is expected to be stellar in 2019. The Tigers welcome back Brady White, who threw for 3,296 yards and 26 touchdowns last season, as well as 1,000-yard rusher Patrick Taylor Jr., and 1,000-yard receiver Damonte Coxie.
Ole Miss, meanwhile, returns eight starters from a defense that allowed an SEC-worst 36.2 points per game last season. Ole Miss is converting to a 3-4 scheme under new defensive coordinator Mike MacIntyre. But questions persist about whether the Ole Miss defense can hold up against a high-octane attack like Memphis.
Does the narrative hold up? Probably. Sure, losing Darrell Henderson, Tony Pollard and their 34 touchdowns from a year ago will change what Memphis is able to do offensively. But Memphis’ offensive track record is impressive. And a scheme change probably won’t save Ole Miss’ defense overnight. It’ll take time for the Rebels to adjust to the new defense, and the Tigers probably won’t give Ole Miss that sort of time on Aug. 31.
4. The oddsmakers are expecting a shootout
The projected total score for this game is hovering around 68 points. With a six-point spread, that means the projected final score is sitting at 37-31 Memphis. Recent Memphis history supports this. In the six games against Power 5 opponents in the Norvell era, the average final scoring total has been 71.5 points.
Does the narrative hold up? Ole Miss lost quarterback Jordan Ta’amu and wide receivers A.J. Brown and D.K. Metcalf from last year’s team. That alone supports Memphis’ status as the favorite.
How does a shootout favor Memphis? Touchdowns could be traded like Pokemon cards in this game, and it’s usually fair to assume the team with the senior quarterback might be more poised down the stretch than the team with the quarterback making his first career college start.
Ole Miss football: No buzz. No hype. Media expect more of the same from Rebels
5. Ole Miss lacks proven depth
After two years of recruiting restrictions, Ole Miss’ roster is thin. And even in places where the depth isn’t thin, the depth is young. It wouldn’t be shocking to see Ole Miss list true freshmen as backups at quarterback, running back, wide receiver, all five offensive line spots, cornerback and safety.
There’s no denying Ole Miss’ youth, and oddsmakers usually don’t look at youth as a great asset when setting game lines. Somewhere between eight and 10 Rebels without starting experience are expected to start versus Memphis, plus an entire second-unit could consist of freshmen and transfers. Ole Miss’ lack of proven depth is tough to ignore.
Does the narrative hold up? Maybe not. Say what you want about Ole Miss’ lack of experienced depth, but the Rebels’ one advantage in this game should be talent. Using composite recruiting rankings as a guide, Ole Miss’ average recruiting class over the last five seasons has ranked 47 spots ahead of Memphis’ classes. What Ole Miss lacks in experienced depth, it might be able to make up for in size, speed and athleticism
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Contact Nick Suss at 601-408-2674 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @nicksuss on Twitter.