After a 34-10 win over Division I-AA Samford and a 23-17 loss to Vanderbilt, all eyes have been on the Ole Miss offense.
While the running game has improved in those last two contests, with the Rebels picking up 196 yards against Samford and another 201 against Vanderbilt, concerns continue after sophomore quarterback Jevan Snead struggled in his last two games which includes throwing six interceptions.
Overlooked in the early season evaluation of the Rebels with the focus on the offense is the play of the defense, which has improved steadily since giving up more than 400 yards and looking questionable in the season opener against Memphis.
Ole Miss heads to Florida on Saturday for a 11:30 (CT) game against the Gators and brings a defense that is much improved from last season. The Rebels are ranked No. 34 in total defense (they finished No. 88 last year) giving up just 300 yards a game. They are 42nd in pass defense (181 yards a game) and 49th in run defense (118 yards a game). In scoring defense, they are at No. 60, giving up almost 22 points a game.
Despite the improvement, defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix was disappointed with the Vanderbilt game.
"I'd rather give up 400 (yards) like we did against Memphis and come out with the W," Nix said. "The biggest statistic we are concerned about is wins and losses."
It's difficult to pinpoint exactly why the defense seems to have steadily improved over the course of the season, but one key reason is a defensive line that has suddenly gotten healthy after being somewhat "make shift" for the Memphis game.
The Rebels were without All-American defensive end Greg Hardy (stress fracture of the foot) and all-SEC performer Peria Jerry (knee) for that game and had nose tackle Ted Laurent in only a limited role in the opener. Highly touted Jerrell Powe was available, but after a three-year layoff, wasn't much of an impact. Now, all are back and near full speed with Powe improving from game to game.
"With everyone starting to get back, what makes you feel good is that Greg Hardy is standing next to you on the sideline," head coach Houston Nutt said. "Of course, you are ready to get him on the field. For him, the first game back, I thought he did some good things. Ted Laurent is at full speed now. Peria Jerry is playing at the highest level. He's really been a difference maker for us. Emmanuel Stephens has more energy now. So that is one of our strengths. The defensive line is very good."
Most surprising; however, may be the play in the secondary, which gave up only 124 passing yards to Samford and 71 yards to Vanderbilt.
That may be impressive, but the real test for the secondary will be this Saturday against a Florida team which likely features as much speed across the board on offense as any team in the country.
Nix is banking on improvement to help the Rebels slow the Gators.
"I think every day's a learning process and you have to continue to teach them," Nix said. "Winning is contagious and it's a habit, just like losing is. It's obvious which direction we've been in, we're just trying to change it to winning ways. Every day you learn and every day you go on the practice field you can get better and when an opportunity presents itself, you have to respond in the right way."
"I think we can play a whole lot better, we still need to be consistent," he continued. "We had the guy down there in the red zone (against Vanderbilt when the Commodores scored their only offensive touchdown on a 9-yard pass play)- if we just play our responsibility - maybe they kick a field goal instead of scoring a touchdown. In order to be a good team, you can't beat yourself and we continue to get penalties and do stupid things like hitting guys out of bounds. Until we learn how not to beat ourselves, we are going to be an average team."
For the Rebels to have a chance at Florida, the defense, while not expected to limit Florida to Samford or Vanderbilt-type numbers, must have a good showing and it's an area where Nix has his players believing.
"The defense has improved," Powe said after the Vanderbilt game. "It was good to get Greg Hardy back, he got a big sack for us and I think he'll help us out a lot. I think we can play with anyone on the defensive side."
"I thought we came out and just had a high, ready to play defense." Nutt said after the Vanderbilt game. "I thought they were outstanding for most of the night. It was the best game of the year for them."
Nutt will be looking for another outstanding performance to give his team a chance in the Swamp.