This week’s Q & A is with college football guru Phil Steele, who has been producing one of the nation’s most comprehensive preseason magazines for over two decades. His most recent magazine hit the stands on July 1. Steele was bullish on Ole Miss heading into the 2014 season, saying the Rebels would win at least nine games. Red his thoughts on this year’s team.
John Davis: Last year if you remember when I talked with you that you were real high on Ole Miss. You felt like they would go 9-3 and it ended up being a very good year for Ole Miss, which got off to a 7-0 start. What are your thoughts on this year? Are you as high on them again?
Phil Steele: I am. When you look at the SEC West, I’ve got three teams that are potential top 10 teams at the start of the year in Alabama, LSU and Auburn. Then right after that I have Ole Miss. When you look at Hugh Freeze and he brought in that recruiting class back in 2013 when he had Nkemdiche and Tony Conner and Laquon Treadwell and Laremy Tunsil, and all those guys are juniors and they’re reaching their prime. They also brought in a good recruiting class in the secondary, which is going to help offset some of the losses they had last year. They have 16 returning starters, which makes them one of the highest returning starters in the SEC this year. When you look at their schedule, I can see this team finally getting to double digit wins with the bowl perhaps. That’s something they haven’t done in 12 years. A lot is going to be determined in the month of November when the play LSU, Arkansas and Mississippi State. I think those are three crucial games. I think Ole Miss is a legitimate SEC contender provided they get good quarterback play.
Davis: Do you have the games picked as far as the ones they will win and lose? I know that’s typically what you have done in the past. What games do you have them winning?
Steele: I go over every single game prior to putting the magazine out and I come up with who I would favor and who I would put as an underdog. I’ve got Ole Miss as an underdog in two games this year. At Alabama and at Auburn. Then I’ve got a couple of pick’ em games, at Florida and at home against LSU and at Mississippi State. The potential is there for 10 in the regular season provided they win all three. Odds are they win one or two of those pick’ em games, so more or less you’re looking at like a 9-3 type of season.
Davis: Ok, what about quarterback? Who do you think comes out of this race? It’s been neck and neck and summer drills are going to be important. Both Ryan Buchanan and Chad Kelly have been reportedly working out hard in the weight room, so it seems like the summer drills will decide the starter. Who do you think ends up being the guy?
Steele: It was one of the tougher ones for me to project in the magazine because Ryan Buchanan has got the experience in the offense. He is a good pocket passing quarterback and can run. DeVante Kincade is more of the spread, athletic guy. He’s not nearly as polished of a passer but he is somebody that is dangerous out of the pocket. Then you have Kelly, the transfer. He wasn’t happy with the way he left Clemson with the behavior in the spring game et cetera. But he had a big year last year in junior college. He has a huge arm, probably the most upside of any of the quarterbacks. When I threw the three of them together, I ended up going with Kelly as the starter. He’s 6-foot-3, got a cannon for an arm. He’s my projected guy to win the job.
Davis: What else do you like about this team? I know the strength of the team last year across the board was the defense. Do you feel like the defense will be as good or do you feel like the offense takes another step this year?
Steele: I think the defense will still be the strength this year. When you look at the front seven, you’ve got the Nkemdiche brothers, Tony Conner, CJ Johnson moving to middle linebacker. I like the addition of a DJ Jones, who is my No. 4 rated JUCO. He’s 310 pounds on the inside, which allowed them to make some of those moves. The question mark will come in the secondary. They lose two pretty good ones in free safety Cody Prewitt and cornerback Senquez Golson. Both guys were Thorpe Award finalists last year. I do like their replacements. Tony Bridges is the No. 6 JUCO coming in. He’s a guy that’s 6-foot-2, which gives them size at the corner spot. They’ve got some guys with some starting experience behind them. Tee Shepard I think can step in and have a big season this year. I think expectations were high for him last year and then of course he tore the tendon in his toe and ended up redshirting. So the Bridges-Shepard combination at cornerback looks pretty good if they play up to their potential. I think the defense is still going to be outstanding. Now offensively, here are things that have to come through for them to be a better offense from last year. I think their offensive line is going to be much improved. Last year’s offensive line was greatly helped by that Presbyterian game. If you take that Presbyterian game away, they averaged just 3.7 yards per carry and four times they were held under 76 yards rushing, and the offensive line did not block very well. When you look at this year’s offensive line, I think they’re going to be much better than even Rebel fans expect. Rebel fans weren’t very high on the offensive line last year and I think they will be one of the most improved offensive lines in the country. Getting Treadwell back at the receiver spot is huge, so I think it’s going to boil down to if the offensive line improves like I think it can, then the offense will be better. Bo Wallace was a good quarterback, but he only had a 22-14 touchdown-interception ratio and this year’s starting quarterback could have a higher ratio and a higher completion percentage. That would make it an improved offense and Ole Miss a dangerous team if those two question marks are addressed.
Davis: What do you think about (Jaylen) Walton? Do you feel like he may have a few more cracks if this offensive line is better? Do you think he becomes a little bit more known as a back?
Steele: I think he will be more known, but I don’t see him as a guy that is logging 25 to 30 carries per game because at 5-8, 165, 170 pounds, he’s not going to be able to take the big banging. They will have guys like an Eric Swinney coming in and Eugene Brazley and a couple of guys that they’re bringing in will help. I think they can get power running from Akeem Judd. (Walton) can be a game breaker. We saw that 91-yard run for a touchdown against Mississippi State. It will be good to see him recapture that.
Davis: What are your thoughts on the Tunsil stuff from what you’ve seen. I know we are still trying to figure it all out, but at the end of day, I’m sure you’re aware that he was arrested having a difference with his stepfather, who has now involved the NCAA. Do you worry about that as somebody who follows things nationally?
Steele: I would worry about it if he’s not on the field because he’s part of the reason I have them as one of the most improved offensive lines. On the off-the-field stuff, I tend not to spend a lot of time thinking about it because it’s something you can’t control. I’m not sure how it’s going to turn out. Hopefully he will be on the field this year. If he is, that’s going to be a big part of the offense. All I care about is whether he’s on the field or off.
Davis: If he was off the field, you would say that Ole Miss is what, an average offensive line?
Steele: I think they will still be good. If you look at the fact that they will have four veteran senior starters up front and three of the four guys are VHD’s and behind them they have a couple of guys like Christian Morris. He tore his Achilles last year but he was originally a guy that signed at UCLA. He’s 6-6, 346. So I would think they would be an above average offensive line, regardless if (Tunsil) plays or not. I just think there will be more improvement if he plays because then all of a sudden, you have five returning starters.
Davis: What else from an Ole Miss standpoint that they’re going to be able to do? Do you think that they will really kind of take the next step with (Hugh) Freeze? I know you mentioned double-digit wins with the bowl. But do you think the wins are even more impressive?
Steele: I think this year’s team is capable of that with the 16 returning starters and the way they open up. If you look at the month of September, with the exception of Alabama, you’re looking at three victories. I think the Florida game is very winnable in the Swamp with Florida in its first year with a new coach and one of the least experienced teams in the SEC this year. New Mexico State, Memphis, getting Texas A&M at home. Here is a team that can be headed to Auburn and ranked in the top 10 at that point. The Auburn game is really going to be the key. They should have beaten Auburn last year if not for the unfortunate tackle and fumble at the end of the game. I’m really looking forward to that Ole Miss-Auburn game. That’s going to determine whether they’re a legitimate contender in the West.
Davis: Who do you have winning the West this season? Is it Alabama or is Auburn?
Steele: It’s Alabama this year. I like their defense. I think they have the best defense in the country this year. I have them as the No. 1 rated defensive line, the No. 3 set of linebackers and the seventh best db’s. While they have a first-year starter at quarterback, they do pretty well with first-year starters. They have a couple of national titles and were the No. 1 seed for the playoffs last year. I think they might even be in better shape at QB this year whether that’s (Jacob) Coker, (David) Cornwell or (Blake) Barnett. When you look at the surrounding talent, and what I feel is the best defense in the country, they always have a chance.
Davis: And who is your most improved team, whether that’s in the SEC West or East?
Steele: LSU. All year long last year when I was doing my radio show, I called LSU a national title contender next year. Last year’s team was the second straight season they suffered double-digit devestating losses to the NFL with numerous juniors leaving for the NFL. This year only one underclassman left early. They have 15 returning starters and they may have one of Les Miles’ fastest defenses out there. Offensively, let’s face it, they’ve gotten poor quarterback play over the last couple of years. But I think Brandon Harris, if he wins the job and I think he will, he’s 6-3, 185 and he had that first start against Auburn and struggled as a true freshman probably would do on the road. He didn’t get much of a chance the rest of the year. I think Harris takes control of the job and I think defenses have to key on Leonard Fournette. Harris has two excellent receivers to throw to in Travin Dural and Malachi Dupre. The offensive line is one of the most underrated in the country. We might just see LSU and Alabama having one of those titanic battles on Nov. 7. It was the Game of the Century for a couple of straight years, it might get back to that level this year.