1. This Ole Miss offense started out like a house of fire, but cooled off a bit in October. What's this unit's true level?
Um.... I don't know? Can that be an answer with only two games remaining on the schedule? I mean, the passing game has been and will continue to be very strong. Chad Kelly is playing great football, and there are tons of great receiving options in Oxford. The running game on the other hand, isn't good. It has gotten a little bit better, but it's still pretty disastrous. The offensive line just isn't all that capable, and the backs aren't good enough to make up for that shortcoming. I'd say that overall the offense is capable of scoring well against roughly anyone. It's just about whether they're put in a position to do so.
The coaches have shown a propensity to try to fit a square peg into a round hole. It has been a problem every year Freeze has been on campus, but it has been magnified even more this year since expectations were so high and went unmet. He's just a stubborn playcaller who doesn't really learn when things don't work. He continues to call outside runs with slow backs on 3rd and 1. He continues to run three times in a row within the ten yard line when the running game hasn't worked all night. It's pretty frustrating.
2. The defense has still been pretty good, but a step down from last season. What's the story there?
You're being kind. The defense is an utter disaster. I actually wrote a, now hilarious, column about how the defense could be BETTER this season. Theoretically, they only lost their starting linebacking corps, a second round cornerback, and a safety who was good but went undrafted because he struggled in coverage. They had highly touted players stepping in to help recover everywhere except linebacker. Then, everything went horrible wrong. Injuries to few key players hurt the team, and then the third best corner on the team quit because he wasn't happy with playing time. A thin secondary got worse when pre-season All-SEC husky (our LB/S hybrid) missed five weeks, causing the team to shuffle things around a bit.
The biggest flaw is definitely the secondary. The run defense isn't bad, and the defensive line is pretty solid, but the secondary simply cannot cover anyone. They give ten yard cushions seemingly at random, preferring to give up a slant on third and 3 rather than.... something deep I guess. And then the deep throws work anyway because the secondary looks so lost.
3. Chad Kelly has been excellent overall, but seems to have a bit of a turnover streak to him. Is this a Swag/No Swag situation?
I don't think so. He has been very, very good. Kelly has already thrown 361 passes this season though, and a stat like that is going to yield some turnovers. Honestly, I'm surprised he hasn't thrown more than twelve, given the volume he's dealing with and how teams don't have to devote much to stop the run. We recently wrote a post highlighting that five of his interceptions hit receivers in the hands and were ultimately picked off. So the situation there is likely better than you think.
Let me use this time to say that had someone told me what Chad Kelly would be doing statistically this year before the season started, I would have said Ole Miss would probably end up in the playoff. Little did I know that the defense would be such a disaster and the playcalling would be so stubborn.
Kelly has a strong arm and incredible deep accuracy. It has led to some lofty numbers for the receiving corps, with five receivers over the 300 yard mark and one (Treadwell) over 1,000. They're getting open, and he's hitting them in stride.
4. The Memphis and Arkansas losses seemed particularly demoralizing. What is the current confidence level among fans in this program?
I would say the confidence level differs drastically between fans. I've heard a number suggesting it would be "Ole Miss-ish" to win these next two games and look back on the season that could have been. I personally think it would be "Ole Miss-ish" to lose these last two games and look back on the season that never really was despite three NFL first rounders. No one is really happy with the way things have gone this year, but expectations at this point fluctuate wildly. I certainly think Ole Miss could win either of these games. I'm not sure there are many fans who disagree with that premise. There's just a very valid concern about what has happened this season to suggest that will happen.
5. Do you think there's any sort of revenge factor for the Rebels after last year? Or are these two teams just trying to hold on to some sort of pride for the remainder of the season?
I don't think there's a revenge factor because the loss to LSU didn't crush everything. When the playoff rankings were released three days later, Ole Miss was still in the top four. That game was awful for fans but didn't really set the program back. I just don't think teams can use "revenge" as a motivator more than once in a season.
The revenge game this year came against Auburn. It was closer than many anticipated, but Ole Miss wasn't going to lose that game. The Auburn Tigers broke Laquon Treadwell's leg last season in crushing fashion on the half yard line on what would have been the go ahead score in a storybook season. After that happened, everything was over, and Arkansas dismantled a reeling team. This year, Laquon scored the go ahead touchdown with a receiver hanging on his back. The team was confident and motivated for that one. I don't know that this game will measure up.