Top 10? Top 5? Ole Miss football players not shying away from preseason expectations
OXFORD — As high as the expectations are for Ole Miss football in 2021, senior linebacker Lakia Henry believes they should be higher.
"It bothers me," Henry said. "We should be at the top 10, top 5 in my opinion. And we’ve got the people to do it. We just have to do it."
There are no official rankings of football teams five months before the start of the season, of course. But after Ole Miss won four of its last five games to end 2020, including an Outback Bowl victory over a top-10 opponent, the Rebels' program is engulfed by hype. Or at the very least, intrigue.
When various outlets released their "Way Too Early Top 25" rankings in January, Ole Miss made appearances on lists penned by everyone from ESPN and The Sporting News to Stadium and The Athletic. ESPN's list ranked Ole Miss as the third-best team in the SEC West. Ahead of LSU. Ahead of Auburn.
That's a lot of hype for a team that returns 10 starters from a defense that allowed 38.3 points per game last year. Ole Miss had the No. 3 total offense in college football last year but still went 5-5 because that offense only scored nine more points than its defense allowed.
Thoughts like that are what bother Henry, who wants people to see Ole Miss' defense as the unit that ended last season, not the one that started it. Ole Miss allowed 556 yards and 45 points per game in the first five games but brought those numbers down to 482 yards and 32 points per game in the last five games.
Sure, that's only a difference between having the worst and having the ninth-worst total defense in college football. That's not the most inspiring turnaround. But allowing 13 fewer points per game does feel significant for a team that never lost by more than 16 points.
"You hear it all the time. When people talk about Ole Miss football, they talk about the offense," junior safety A.J. Finley said. "We know that. We know we had games in the fourth quarter where we could’ve made a few stops and that lost us the game. We’re coming into this (season) to see if we can get those stops."
Every Ole Miss defender who's spoken to the media this spring has talked about playing with a "chip on their shoulder." That's not a surprise. That's the motto of every defender with an ego bruised by a season of getting run through, thrown over and scored on by anyone and everyone who tried.
Genuine or not, that attitude change — coupled with the infusion of 14 defenders signed in Ole Miss' 17th-ranked recruiting class — is giving the Rebels' defense confidence. And Ole Miss' offense, which returns eight starters including quarterback Matt Corral, has the earned confidence of a team that ranked in the top three in the SEC in just about every significant statistic.
That confidence, and the expectations coming from outside the program, are a topic coach Lane Kiffin said he'll broach more as the season gets closer.
"It’s good to have some energy around," Kiffin said. "With that comes expectations. We’re just trying to do a good job and helping guys learn from experiences that we’ve gone through as coaches. We’ve been in position where teams or coaches have been expected a lot of and how that’s been done well and how that’s not been done well."
Contact Nick Suss at 601-408-2674 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @nicksuss on Twitter.