The 2018 Ole Miss football season can be summed up in two words: injuries and inconsistencies.
Although the Rebels entered the season ineligible to play in the postseason due to NCAA sanctions, hopes were high for Matt Luke’s squad coming into the 2018 campaign. Those hopes were strengthened when the Rebels handily beat Texas Tech 47-27 in the Advocare Texas Kickoff, and Matt Luke donned a cowboy hat and celebrated with his team alongside a trophy after the win.
During the Rebels’ rout of the Red Raiders, however, came the first of many injuries that would plague the team as the season wore on. Cornerback and kick returner Jaylon Jones suffered a torn ACL in the season opener, and suddenly, the Rebels, who planned to rely on their experience in the defensive backfield this season, were without one of their best coverage men.
That theme of injuries in the secondary would continue with Montrell Custis tearing his ACL in a 62-7 blowout loss against Alabama, as well as C.J. Moore’s season-ending injury in a loss to LSU. These two injuries forced running backs Tylan Knight and Armani Linton to flip to the defensive side of the ball in an effort to restore some depth to the unit.
After the season-opening win against Texas Tech, Ole Miss struggled to stop opposing offenses and to score in SEC play, especially in the red zone. The Rebels allowed 41 points to Southern Illinois and trailed at halftime. They were even tied with Kent State at the half and were blown out by SEC West rivals Alabama and LSU before travelling to Little Rock to face the Arkansas Razorbacks.
Early on, it appeared that the Rebels were going to suffer their fifth-straight loss to Arkansas, but Ole Miss stormed back in the second half to win 37-33 over the Hogs. At this point in their schedule, the Rebels sat at 5-2, and with games against Auburn, South Carolina, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State remaining, seven or eight total wins were not out of the question as they hit the home stretch.
The comeback, rain-filled, October win over Arkansas, however, would be the Rebels’ last taste of the win column in 2018.
Ole Miss failed to execute offensively against Auburn, failed to string together stops and offensive drives against South Carolina, failed to hold onto a halftime lead against Texas A&M, failed to score in the red zone against Vanderbilt and had nearly no momentum against Mississippi State. A season that started so positively with an early-September win in Houston ran off the rails sometime in the middle of October and failed to regain its direction before screeching to a halt on Thanksgiving.
This midseason collapse and lack of consistency early in the season led to the firing of defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff on Black Friday after the Egg Bowl loss, and many fans are calling for more staff changes to be made — specifically concerning offensive coordinator Phil Longo.
While Longo and the rest of the staff’s future remains uncertain, all signs point to Matt Luke remaining the Rebels’ head coach in 2019, but he could be surrounded by new faces on the Ole Miss sideline. Both Longo and McGriff were hired by former head coach Hugh Freeze, so perhaps Luke building his own staff of assistants could lead to stronger play next season for the Rebels.
Jordan Ta’amu, DaMarkus Lodge, Ken Webster and other seniors are graduating after this season, and A.J. Brown, Greg Little and D.K. Metcalf will likely be high picks in the 2019 NFL Draft.
The Rebels do, however, have returning quarterback Matt Corral, who will be listed as a redshirt freshman and showed promise in his playing time this season. Corral will be flanked by Scottie Phillips and Isaiah Woullard in the backfield and will have some reliable passing targets in Elijah Moore, Braylon Sanders and others next season.
If the right offensive system is adopted for this talent and the defense matures and can stay healthy, 2019 could hold some promise for Ole Miss football. But consistency, which was lacking in 2018, will be key. For Luke, that starts with recruiting and assembling a strong staff heading into next season if he hopes to hold onto his dream job for much longer.