PARRISH ALFORD: Bright outlook down the stretch

PARRISH ALFORD

PARRISH ALFORD

OXFORD

It’s a little past the halfway point for the Ole Miss football season, so it’s a little late for mid-season evaluation.

However, given the bizarre makeup of the Ole Miss schedule, this is the best time to kick the tires on the Rebels.

Four straight road games to begin the season were broken up by a home game against an FCS opponent and an open date, so it could have been worse. Still, the road was an emotionally draining task, and coming home to face two top-10 opponents was no guarantee of success.

The Rebels have reached this point at 5-3, which is where they were after eight games last year. This time, the last four games are not about the hope for bowl eligibility but the prospects to improve their bowl standing beyond Birmingham.

Ole Miss players have coaches have spoken openly about the chance to end the season on a roll.

There’s such a clear division of schedule strength between the first six games and the last six that the Rebels could really make that happen, though there’s an element of danger in voicing that thought.

Still, it’s an Ole Miss team right now that’s playing with ability and confidence and appears to be getting healthier through the open date.

Since the beginning of the season we’ve seen improvement on the offensive line and back-ups at various positions step up to play big snaps during a rash of injuries.

With Jaylen Walton and I’Tavis Mathers as the featured backs the run game has improved on the inside.

We’ve seen starting defensive tackle Bryon Bennett move out and be effective at end, a luxury afforded because junior college transfer Lavon Hooks, who hadn’t figured in much, took a step forward.

The defense figures to be stronger and deeper when starters like cornerback Mike Hilton and end Robert Nkemdiche return, which should be against Arkansas if all goes according to plan.

We’ve seen starting quarterback Bo Wallace, who threw 17 interceptions a year ago, go four games without throwing his first. Wallace has thrown just three interceptions in eight games and is on pace to throw fewer than six.

He’s not the only quarterback to show improvement. Barry Brunetti has elevated his passing game, and between them there is an impressive ratio of 16 touchdowns to three picks.

Talking about a roll is one thing. Getting there will require focus and attention.

There are some areas like penalties that can be cleaned up, but a lot of factors – the schedule chief among them – are breaking the Rebels’ way right now.

Parrish Alford (parrish.alford@journalinc.com) covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs daily at insideolemisssports.com.