December 8, 2022

Mississippi wide receiver DaMarkus Lodge (5) cannot catch a first-half pass while Mississippi State defensive back Chris Rayford (24) defends during an NCAA college football game in Starkville, Miss., Thursday, Nov. 23, 2017. Mississippi won 31-28. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Head coach Matt Luke had a solid first season with the Rebels, improving the team’s win total from 2016, defeating rival Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl and the removal of the interim tag next to his name. There’s a reason to fill positive about the upcoming season with an offense that’s loaded with experience and returns eight starters. The defense is another story, returning only four starters, including two in the front seven.

Team strengths: The offensive passing-attack. Ole Miss finished first in the SEC and 11th nationally in pass yards per game. Senior signal-caller Jordan Ta’amu threw for 1,682 yards and 11 touchdowns in limited action last season. Four of the top-five pass catchers return from last season. DK Metcalf, A.J. Brown, DeMarkus Little and Dawson Knox combined for 179 catches, 2,937 yards and 25 touchdowns last season. Four starters on the offensive line returns to make sure those numbers stay the same this fall.

Team weaknesses: The front seven. The Rebels finished dead last in the SEC and 116th nationally in total defense. Only two starters return in the front seven. That is a recipe for disaster in the run-heavy and physical SEC.

Players to watch: Wide receiver A.J. Brown and defensive tackle Josiah Coatney. Brown led the team in catches, receiving yards and touchdowns last season with 75 receptions, 1,252 yards and 11 scores. Coatney will anchor the depleted defensive front seven and finished last season with 65 tackles, eight for loss and 3.5 for loss.

The schedule: Brutal. Playing in the SEC West is always tough. Texas Tech is the headliner in the non-conference slate. Alabama, Auburn, South Carolina and Mississippi State are at home. LSU and Texas A&M are on the road.

My take: The Rebels will improve on their win total, but with all the new faces on defense it’s hard to expect more than a 7-5 season. Ole Miss won’t get a taste at the post season because of NCAA sanction, so expect the Rebels not to take any game for granted.