Ole Miss Rebels

Standard down deviation: inside the Ole Miss offense

Mississippi running back Eugene Brazley (23) runs through an attempted tackle by a Memphis defender for a first down during the second half of their NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016, in Oxford, Miss. Ole Miss won 48-28. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

It’s no secret that Ole Miss’s rushing attack hasn’t been great under Hugh Freeze.

It’s usually been in the middle of the SEC, ranking between sixth and eighth in the conference in sack-free yards per carry against FBS competition three of his five years. The Rebels had a bad year in 2014 when they ranked 13th in the league and a good one in 2015 when they ranked third. Those cancel each other out and continue to leave an impression of mediocrity.

Ole Miss is sixth so far this year in that category, with bad rushing outings against Florida State and Alabama weighing against good rushing outings against Georgia and Memphis. However, the Rebels are awful at running the ball in several key ways. They are 82nd nationally in their rate of runs that go for at least five yards, 85th in runs getting past the line of scrimmage, and 104th in succeeding with the run on third- or fourth-and-short. Even with the great yards-per-carry rate, they were in the 100s nationally in the latter two categories last year as well.

It’s too bad for the Ole Miss offense that the rushing attack isn’t more of a threat. When there is a decent chance of a run, Chad Kelly has shredded defenses at a remarkable rate.

In the Football Outsiders parlance, a “standard down” is first down, 2nd-and-7 or fewer, and 3rd or 4th-and-4 or fewer. Theoretically the offense can either run or pass as it pleases on these downs, and all teams on average run about 60 percent of the time. A “passing down” is 2nd-and-8 or more and 3rd or 4th-and-5 or more. Passing is generally the best way to go on these downs; on average, teams run only 34 percent of the time.

Ole Miss throws more than average on both kinds of downs. The Rebels run only 50 percent of the time on standard downs and a mere 22 percent of the time on passing downs. Even though opposing defenses should be thinking about the run less often against the Rebels than against other teams, Kelly has done amazing things on standard downs:

Opponent Passing Pct. Yards Yds/Att INT Sacks
Florida State 12/24 50.0% 230 9.6 1 3
Alabama 15/18 83.3% 297 16.5 0 0
Georgia 8/8 100.0% 180 22.5 0 0
Memphis 21/27 77.8% 233 8.6 1 1
Totals 56/77 72.7% 940 12.2 2 4


These are remarkable figures.

Kelly’s lines against Georgia and especially Alabama, considering the quality of the Crimson Tide defense, are absurd. Keep in mind that these figures even exclude any snaps in the Football Outsiders’ definition of garbage time, which means nothing Kelly did in the second half against UGA or in the fourth quarter against Memphis is included.

Meanwhile, here is what Kelly has done on passing downs, a time when defenses could expect an attempted throw four out of five times:

Opponent Comp Pct. Yards Yds/Att INT Sacks
Florida State 9/15 60.0% 83 5.5 2 2
Alabama 4/12 33.3% 58 4.8 1 0
Georgia 5/9 55.6% 53 5.9 0 0
Memphis 8/14 57.1% 118 8.4 0 0
Totals 26/50 52.0% 312 6.2 3 2


The difference is night-and-day.

His completion rate drops more than 20 percentage points. His yards-per-attempt rate falls by half. His interception rate more than doubles from 2.6 percent to 6 percent.

The Rebels have one of the country’s best and most explosive offenses as it is. Just imagine how much more productive the team could be if the run game was more consistent in gaining ground.

It’s difficult to recommend that Ole Miss run the ball more often on standard downs. Kelly has been carving up defenses plenty in those situations at the current run-pass mixture. However, a more functional rushing game could allow the Rebels to run more on passing downs, particularly on second-and-long or third downs with five or six yards to go. Edging closer to the national rate of rushing on passing downs would help Kelly improve in those situations; defenses would have to pay more attention to the run.

The Rebels have the best offense in the SEC, whether counting by a conventional measure (see yards per play) or by an advanced statistics measure (see S&P+). They’re on pace to become just the eleventh SEC team to average more than seven yards per play in a season since 2000. They’d also be only the third squad to do it twice in a row after Tim Tebow’s Florida in 2007-’08 and Johnny Manziel’s Texas A&M in 2012-’13.

Even so, the team’s lackluster running game is preventing it from being even more potent.

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