On the defensive side of the ball, most people expected Ole Miss to have a pretty good defense with Cody Prewitt, Robert Nkemdiche, Tony Conner, etc... back. But this unit has probably surpassed even the most optimistic projections so far. What's worked so well for it?
Um... everything? The pass rush has allowed a fantastic secondary to play aggressive football, pressing receivers at the line and not worrying as much about receivers getting by them. The safeties have flown all over the place. Opposing offenses, in an effort to avoid the aforementioned Nkemdiche and the rest of the defensive line, have taken to getting the ball out quickly to the flats. That doesn't work though, as Prewitt, Tony Conner, some reliable corners, and a number of undersized but quick linebackers are always there to make sure tackles. They play a lot of cover-3, and that has been incredibly successful so far.
As for the run defense, it's definitely good (8th in the country), but they haven't really been tested very much by teams who run right at them. That's certainly the "weakness," if we're going to call it that. At the beginning of the year, they struggled with the run, regardless of where it was going. After their week four bye, however, they've been exceptional (including limiting A&M to ZERO rushing yards). But if I'm game-planning against them, I'm going to run downhill fast and see if the linebackers can make plays. Running outside or throwing screens just plays to the strength of the defense.
Who, or what, have been some of the surprises on that side of the ball?
I think the biggest surprise has to be Senquez Golson. I've personally always liked his game, thinking he was in the right spots but just couldn't make the plays he needed to. As a senior, he has made those plays. Golson is second in the country in interceptions with seven through seven games. Only a couple of them have been lucky, as most of the time he's ripping the ball away just before a receiver has a chance at it. He's small, so you would think he would struggle against big receivers, but that hasn't been the case through seven games.
The other huge surprise is probably Marquis Haynes. Haynes is a true freshman defensive end who weighs 220 pounds. In high school, he was a track star, winning a state championship in the 100m and also doing very well in high jump and long jump competitions. In other words, he's incredibly explosive. We had heard he was better than many people thought (recruiting sites all labeled him as a three-star), but you never know what that means. He started the season relatively slowly, despite playing lots of snaps. However, in his last two games he has sacked Kenny Hill and Justin Worley a combined 4.5 times. He's third in the SEC in sacks and leads the conference in forced fumbles. Pretty unexpected stuff from a freshman coming into a proven defense.
On offense, the #narrative of course has revolved around the whole "Good Bo/Bad Bo" thing, but the reality is he really has done a nice job of avoiding turnovers to date. What's been the big difference with him?
It's pretty obvious he has a lot of faith in the defense. Aside from the Alabama game, Ole Miss has raced out to quick starts and significant leads. At that point, the coaching staff feels like the defense is good enough that the only way the other team could get back in the game would be to give up some turnovers. Hugh Freeze's playcalling has reflected as much, as we've seen him go very conservative with multi-score leads. That has really resonated with Bo, as he's taking what the defense is giving him and content with punting the ball away if there's nothing there (thanks to a great freshman punter). In the past, Bo would force things. Now, that's not nearly as common. No one expected Bo to have zero turnovers in the first four SEC games.
Coming into the year the offensive line was a bit of a concern, and at this point they still seem to have problems rushing the ball and allowing some negative plays. Is that a big concern?
Definitely. It's the glaring weakness of the team. There are worse teams at running the ball, but the Rebels certainly don't get any consistency from the unit. Things have definitely gotten better over the course of the year, but there are still glaring issues there.
The problem is two-fold. First, the offensive line struggles to pull properly, since the two starting guards were recruited for a very different system (if we can call anything Houston Nutt did a system). Aaron Morris and Justin Bell are both 330+, and that's not ideal for an offense that wants its guards to get to the second level on "read" plays. The coaches have recruited alright at the position, but the best backup guard is a true freshman who is incredibly promising but out-of-shape and unable to play as much as he's needed. I would be remiss not to mention that the offensive line has actually been quite good at pass blocking so far this season, having allowed just 13 sacks through seven games.
The other problem, while not as severe as the offensive line, is the running back position. Ole Miss has many backs who are quite good but none who have shown the ability to be great. All four primary ball carriers show flashes at times, but there's no one here who has the defense shaking in its boots.
Wallace and Laquon Treadwell are the big names on this offense, but who are some of the other playmakers that are a little under the radar that LSU fans should be aware of?
The second best receiver is Vince Sanders, a senior who struggled through injury last season. Sanders is 6'1" 185, so you'd think he would be easy to tackle. That is not the case. He's strangely strong and tough to bring down. He's also very reliable and can make the tough catch. As far as #2 receivers, Ole Miss could do a lot worse.
One other player who has to be taken seriously at all times is Evan Engram. Engram is a tight end with 19 catches and 292 yards on the season. Those numbers aren't eye-popping, but he's a glaring mismatch for most teams. He's a 6'3" 220 pound tight end who runs like a receiver. This makes it tough to figure out what Ole Miss is doing during subbing since he could line up out wide, in the slot, or as an H-back. Do you plan to cover him with a linebacker and then have the linebacker covering him in the slot? Do you cover him with a corner and then learn it's a running play? He just allows the offense to be very multiple and hard to predict.
As for running backs, the one to worry about is Jaylen Walton. Walton gets bottled up sometimes, but he's very fast and shifty. If any one back were to find success against LSU, it would probably be him.