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COLUMN: Blowout loss exposes Ole Miss’ flaws

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — If you didn’t know, now you know: Ole Miss needs Laremy Tunsil.

It might be the most obvious observation in college football. Any team with a future first-round — no, top-10 — NFL draft pick on the line of scrimmage has to have him on the field to be as good as it can be, but Ole Miss managed to make a lot of believers out of a bunch of people, including me, by getting by without him.

Until Saturday.

The combination of talent former Florida coach Will Muschamp and first-year head man Jim McElwain have brought in recently has the Gators’ defensive front loaded. Every opponent has had fits trying to crack the front four of the Gators, who began the day ranked second in the SEC in sacks and third in run defense.

But if Florida’s players weren’t decked out in all orange inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday, you’d be forgiven if you thought you were watching Seattle’s Legion of Boom lining up across from the Rebels’ offense.

Ole Miss couldn’t breathe.

Chad Kelly ran around like a school kid playing dodge ball. Florida’s pass rushers frequently got around tackle Fahn Cooper on the left, where Tunsil would normally be, and Sean Rawlings on the right, where Cooper would normally be, and usually met Kelly in the middle. They sacked Ole Miss’ quarterback four times and flushed him out of the pocket too many times to count.

And the Gators feasted on an interior line that’s piling up the one thing it couldn’t afford: injuries. The Rebels are implementing a four-man rotation at guard among senior Aaron Morris, sophomore Rod Taylor and a pair of freshmen in Javon Patterson and Jordan Sims. As much as they’re trying and at times willing themselves — Taylor is gutting through his surgically repaired shoulder, Morris is limited after two torn ACLs, and Patterson, though uber talented, is still a freshman and joined the injury list Saturday with a tweaked ankle — there’s just no push inside.

Ole Miss’ running game, or lack thereof, is starting to resemble last year’s version. The Rebels ran it 33 times Saturday and barely averaged 2 yards an attempt. A running game that ranked 10th in the SEC a season ago is averaging just 2.9 yards a carry against teams its own size (which doesn’t count Tennessee-Martin and Fresno State).

That’s a key ingredient in the recipe for disaster in a line-of-scrimmage game, but Saturday showed there’s more to be concerned about.

For the second straight week, not a whole lot worked the closer the Rebels got to the goal line. Ole Miss compiled just 36 yards on the 12 plays it ran inside Florida’s 20, and its three red-zone trips went missed field goal, field goal and a consolation touchdown.

There’s a correlation here with the Rebels’ increased level of competition and a decrease in red-zone success.

Defensively, the loss of Tony Conner has left a void at Huskie the Rebels are struggling to fill. A.J. Moore missed a third-down tackle in space on Florida’s first scoring drive and was the culprit in coverage on Brandon Powell’s 77-yard catch-and-run score midway through the second quarter that signaled the start of the rout.

That’s not a knock on the inexperienced Moore as much as it is a reminder of just how versatile and valuable Conner, another player with first-round potential, is at that position, but Ole Miss has to get more there for the next two weeks if not longer until Conner returns.

As ugly as Saturday was for Ole Miss, it’s just one game. There’s still time for the Rebels to get themselves back in SEC and national contention, but the performance in Gainesville showed just how far the Rebels have to go.

Davis Potter is the sports editor of the EAGLE. You can contact him at davis.potter@oxfordeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DPotterOE.