It was only two seasons ago that the Rebels were a Sugar Bowl team that crushed Oklahoma State 48-20 en route to a 10-3 record. Since then, it has been a well-documented fall from grace that culminated in Hugh Freeze's resignation this spring and the pre-emptive ban on a bowl game this season.
After a couple of season-opening wins over South Alabama and UT Martin, the Rebels have played like a team that has nothing to play for. They have lost five of their past six games with the sole win a 57-35 win over Vanderbilt.
The offense is high powered, and the defense is a literal dumpster fire. That said, this is not a team that Kentucky can overlook. The Rebels are a team that averages 31.5 points a game so you can never really count them out.
Ole Miss leads this series 27-14-1, but the teams have split the last four games, with the home team winning each time. Kentucky has won their two home games with the Rebels handily by a combined score of 61-27. It bodes well that this game is a Kroger Field, and in reality, it should be a game that Kentucky wins easily.
We know that nothing has been easy this year.
With that said, let's meet the Rebels.
The offense has been the strength of this Rebels team, but they recently were struck another blow with the loss of quarterback Shea Patterson to injury. Junior Jordan Ta'amu has played well and is coming off a 368 yard game versus Arkansas. Ta'amu has completed 65.9% of his passes and has one interception. He does not have a passing touchdown yet. For Kentucky, it is another dual-threat quarterback to worry about. Ta'amu had nine carries for 76 yards and two TDs against Arkansas last week.
Jordan Wilkins, who missed last season, leads the rushing attack with 586 yards and 5 TDs. He averages 5.9 yards a carry and has 20 catches for 194 yards and a touchdown. Eric Swinney also missed last year, but he was one of the top 15 backs in his recruiting class in 2015. He has 168 yards rushing and two TDs and a 6.5 yard per carry average. In just parts of three games, Ta'amu is the third leading rusher on this team. D'Vaughn Pennamon is the short yardage back and averages just 2.9 yards a carry and has 2 TDs.
Expect some big plays from the passing game as the Rebels have three players that have 70-yard receptions this year. AJ Brown is a stud with 41 catches for 765 yards and 6 TDs. DaMarkus Lodge also has 6 TDs and 511 yards. Both Brown and Lodge average over 18 yards a reception. Freshman DK Metcalf has 30 catches for 479 yards and 4 TDs. Van Jefferson has 30 catches for 345 yards, so Ta'amu has several dependable targets.
To say the defense has been a dumpster fire would be an insult to dumpster fires. This is a defense that allows 37.5 points a game and even South Alabama put up 27 on them. In the SEC, that figure goes up to 44.6 points a game allowed. The Rebels allow 260.5 yards a game on the ground, and if you run against them, you average 5.7 yards a carry. Teams pass for 207 yards a game, and that seems respectable, but the Rebels give up 12.9 yards per reception.
The defensive line has done a decent job of getting to the quarterback, however. DE Marquis Haynes flirted with the NFL last year, and he leads the team with 6.5 sacks. He is a hard hitter that has forced three fumbles and has 8.5 tackles for losses among his 35 tackles. Breeland Speaks has five sacks and does a good job of putting pressure on the quarterback. Josiah Coatney adds 42 tackles and a sack. Of those tackles, 4.5 were for a loss.
DeMarquis Haynes is a one-man wrecking crew that is carrying the Rebel flag for the linebacking corps. He leads the team with 72 tackles, and nine of this are for a loss. He also has contributed two sacks and has a nose for the ball. Unfortunately, the rest of the linebacker corps is as solid or consistent as Haynes. Detric Bing-Dukes has just 27 tackles at the MLB spot. Donta Evans adds 16 tackles and Taylor Polk 10. Former Wildcat coach Bradley Dale Peveto is in his first year as LB coach and he inherited a mess and they have not improved that much.
Teams don't pass a lot of the Rebels, but they don't really need to. This is still a unit that is pretty cohesive, and they have racked up a lot of tackles covering for the linebackers. AJ Moore has 37 tackles and an interception, as well as three tackles for a loss. Zedrick Woods has 52 tackles. JUCO transfer Javien Hamilton has made a huge impact and has been a ballhawk. He has three interceptions but also leads the team with four passes broken up and seven passes defended. CJ Moore has 31 tackles while Myles Hartsfield has been steady with 31 tackles.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN?
Like last week, this is a game that Kentucky should win rather easily at home. This will likely be no walk in the park for Kentucky as the Rebel offense legitimately scares me. The big play receivers could have a field day against Kentucky's inconsistent and somewhat porous pass defense.
Opposing teams have scored 65 points off of turnovers against the Rebels, and it could be a lot worse. This is a team that has 12 fumbles on the season, but only three of them were lost. It gives me hope that Kentucky won a game with four turnovers by the offense last week and I can see the Wildcats defense forcing a few this week.
While the Rebel attack is dangerous, this is a team that struggles in the red zone with just 52% of those possessions resulting in touchdowns. And as we have seen, the Kentucky defense is a bend but not break defense. Expect a lot of yards between the twenties for the Rebels, but hopefully, Kentucky can limit them to field goals.
Although some Kentucky fans are angry that Kentucky is 6-2, this is a pretty good team. And they have proven they have a will to win as the Wildcats of the last two seasons have done something we have not seen in Lexington for a while: win the close game. While the fact that the games are close is frustrating to a portion of the fanbase, this is a team that can seal the deal.
The Cats could very well lose this game, but I think last week was a turning point for this team. I'm still so impressed that they could win with a -4 turnover ratio and that says a lot about the heart of this team. This will be a shootout for a while, but there is a big difference between Ole Miss and Tennessee. Unlike the Vols, the Rebels are not playing for a bowl game, and they are not playing to save Matt Luke’s job as he is likely gone regardless of the outcome. Let's call this one 38-28 for the Wildcats.