Is Ole Miss football's dominant defense legit, or just bullying terrible teams?

Nick Suss
Mississippi Clarion Ledger

ATLANTA − It's time to start taking Ole Miss football's defense seriously. Probably.

Through three games, Ole Miss' defense has played a stifling, attacking, frenzied brand of football that has yielded some of the best results in recent memory. The Rebels (3-0) have only allowed one touchdown and 13 points all season. They rank 10th in the nation in rushing yards allowed per game, 14th in passing yards allowed per attempt, fourth in sacks, 11th in tackles for loss, eighth in fewest trips to the red zone allowed and fourth in allowing the fewest plays of 20 yards or longer. Among SEC teams, only Alabama has forced more punts. Among all FBS teams, only Georgia has allowed fewer points.

There is a question of competition, though. Troy is a mid-level team in the Sun Belt Conference who the Rebels played in their first game with a new coach and offensive coordinator. Central Arkansas is a mid-tier FCS team. Georgia Tech might be the worst Power 5 team in 2022.

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The results are impressive, but they should be. To borrow a familiar narrative, this is the gridiron equivalent of Ole Miss baseball run-ruling Charleston Southern, VCU and Oral Roberts before hitting a wall in SEC play. But unlike the eventual College World Series champions, Ole Miss football doesn't have the luxury of playing in a sport with a 64-team postseason where a terrible month doesn't disqualify you from winning it all.

Ole Miss has aspirations to make it back to the New Year's Six or get over the hump and make it to the SEC Championship game. For that to work out, this defense has to be legit. So, is it?

Let's start with the positive case. Ole Miss' defense has largely thrived independent of luck. The Rebels aren't getting stops because of turnovers and missed kicks. They've been winning by getting consistent pressure from their front three, sure-handed tackling from their linebackers and tight coverage from their defensive backs.

Pro Football Focus grades Ole Miss as the third-best defense in the country through three weeks, giving the Rebels a 92.2 team grade. This includes ranking No. 20 in run defense grade, No. 11 in tackling grade, No. 13 in pass rush grade and No. 1 overall in coverage grade. These Rebels aren't winning on fluke plays or with one obvious strength. Every phase is playing well. Complete team efforts tend to be more sustainable than one or two individual feats.

Of course, none of this invalidates the theory that this is only happening because Ole Miss is playing bad teams. ESPN's Football Power Index weighs Ole Miss' strength of schedule at No. 115 in the FBS. No SEC team has faced an easier slate and among teams that entered last week ranked in the USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll, only Michigan and Clemson have played easier foes.

This will change soon. The Rebels' remaining strength of schedule is rated the 22nd-toughest in the country. Seven of the last nine teams on Ole Miss' schedule are averaging 30 or more points per game. Next week's opponent, Tulsa (2-1), is averaging 43 points per game and has the nation's No. 1 passing offense with 413 passing yards per game.

It's fair to expect Ole Miss' defense to keep playing well. There haven't been many indicators of regression, though it'll be interesting to see how the unit fares against better offensive lines when sacks and tackles for loss are harder to come by.

Now probably isn't the time to declare Ole Miss' defense belongs in the elite echelon with teams like Georgia, Alabama, Clemson and Michigan. But the Rebels have at least put the nation on notice to argue that they could reach those highs by season's end.

Contact Nick Suss at nsuss@gannett.com. Follow Nick on Twitter @nicksuss.