Why Ole Miss is optimistic scorching hot offense that started season returns in Sugar Bowl
NEW ORLEANS — The Ole Miss offense that set the college football world aflame in September might finally be ready to make a return.
Ole Miss' offense was good in 2021. Quite good, actually. The No. 8 Rebels (10-2) averaged 35.9 points and 506.7 yards per game. They led the SEC in total offense, rushing offense, turnover margin and first downs per game. The only Power 5 team that scored more points per game and gained more yards per game than Ole Miss was Ohio State.
But even those highs are tainted by what could've been. Quarterback Matt Corral accounted for 3,936 yards and 31 touchdowns despite playing the second half of the season on an injured ankle. Junior receiver Jonathan Mingo missed seven games with a foot injury and senior receivers Dontario Drummond and Braylon Sanders both missed games and were limited in others down the stretch because of multiple injuries each.
Running back Jerrion Ealy missed a game. Center Orlando Umana missed a game. Guard Caleb Warren missed two games. Tight end Chase Rogers missed the last seven games and guard Ben Brown missed the last six.
Along with Corral, tackles Nick Broeker and Jeremy James were the only Rebels offensive players who started all 12 games.
Heading into Saturday's Sugar Bowl (7:45 p.m., ESPN) against No. 6 Baylor (11-2), a lot of those nagging issues seem to be solved.
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"When you play inside this league and you play the schedule that we're playing, it's kind of part of it and comes with the territory," Ole Miss offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby said. "At the same time, I think we're going to step on the field Saturday night the most healthy we've been since walking into the dome (Week 1) versus Louisville. I'm excited about that. Hopefully we'll continue that trend here in the next 24 hours having all our guys and being ready to roll."
Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin joked in November that his team would look more different in its bowl game than any other college program. Usually when that happens, it's because of opt-outs. In Ole Miss' case, it's because key contributors are healing.
Corral said the two weeks off between the Egg Bowl on Thanksgiving night and the start of bowl practices allowed his body time to recover, something that was never afforded to him during the grind of SEC play. Ole Miss ended its season with nine games in nine weeks, meaning Corral never had a bye week to let his ankle heal.
That fact was hard to ignore down the stretch. Prior to Corral's injury, Ole Miss averaged 44 points and 553 yards per game. Following it, the Rebels averaged 28 points and 460 yards. That window coincided with the injuries to Brown, Sanders and Drummond putting an even heavier load on an injured quarterback and limiting what Ole Miss could do.
Consider Ole Miss' third down, fourth down and red zone efficiencies before and after the season's midpoint. Following Corral's injury, Ole Miss' third and fourth down conversion rate dropped from 44% to 38% and its red zone touchdown scoring rate fell from 74% to 48%.
"We've played great and we could play even better," Ealy said. "We left a lot of yards out on the field. There have been a lot of plays that were negative that should've been touchdowns."
Saturday is a final chance to test that theory. Barring any surprise COVID absences, the only players who shouldn't be available for the Ole Miss offense are Brown and Rogers. Rogers' replacement, Casey Kelly, has caught17 passes for 150 yards and a score in the last seven games. And after trying out a series of guards to bandage over Brown and Warren's injuries in the middle of the season, Eli Acker has emerged as one of the Rebels' more reliable interior linemen.
More importantly, the players who filled in for all those injured players are still available too. So now Ole Miss has experienced backups everywhere but quarterback and tackle. Which, for a team that goes as fast as Ole Miss does, is a huge advantage.
"It's good to have everybody back," Sanders said. "As a tempo team, having everybody back helps us tremendously. You can see we're moving, we're playing faster in practice and everybody looks great."
Contact Nick Suss at 601-408-2674 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @nicksuss on Twitter.