COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- In the moments after Ole Miss put the finishing touches on a 35-20 road win over Texas A&M on Saturday, Robert Nkemdiche and Cody Prewitt fielded questions from reporters about their latest stifling defensive performance.
They did so with a business-like demeanor and a quiet confidence, the look of a group that expected nothing less -- or rather, an even better performance than it had. Those final six meaningless points that the Aggies put up on the final play of the game serve as nits to pick for a unit this elite.
The pair even sported black T-shirts donning their defense’s nickname (“Landsharks,” which was subject of a “College GameDay” feature). It read: “WANTED … In the air or on the ground … LANDSHARK D."
Is it the best defense in the country? The Rebels are certainly making their case.
"Of course that's how I feel, because I know the guys we have and I know how we practice every day and I know our talent level,” Nkemdiche said. “I just know that we can be the best in the country, if we're not. I feel wholeheartedly that we are.”
Ole Miss DB Cody Prewitt rocking the "Landshark D" T-shirt after the game tonight. pic.twitter.com/7nbEaImgTi— Sam Khan Jr. (@skhanjr) October 12, 2014
The Rebels defense has been the talk of the SEC, and for good reason. Ole Miss ranks first in the league in points allowed per game, yards per play, yards per pass attempt, goal-to-go efficiency and opponent QBR. It ranks in the top six nationally in each of those categories.
While some may have taken issue with the schedule in the first four games, the last two weeks have seen the Landsharks flex their collective muscle against Alabama and Texas A&M. Ole Miss held the Crimson Tide to one offensive touchdown and 10 points (the other seven came via a fumble return), and the Aggies had 14 points until the aforementioned final touchdown, which had no impact on the result.
The No. 3 Rebels have played championship-caliber defense thus far.
"It doesn't get any better than 6-0,” defensive coordinator Dave Wommack said with a laugh. “You can't be any better than that.”
The unit has a good mix of quality veterans and elite young talent that can beat teams in multiple ways. For instance, against Texas A&M, a usually high-powered attack, Ole Miss blitzed sparingly, doing so only 8 percent of the time, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Rebels tackled soundly, limiting Texas A&M to only 3.1 yards after the catch per reception, well below the 7.3-yard average the Aggies had before Saturday. When the Aggies tried to run, the Rebels had answers, allowing a minuscule 1.5 yards per carry.
They have also been stellar in critical situations like red zone efficiency (35.7 percent, second in the SEC and sixth nationally) and third-down conversions (31.5 percent, fifth in the SEC and 20th nationally).
"I just feel like it's the fact that we're so tenacious,” Nkemdiche said. “We have so many people that run to the ball. All-out effort, pursuit, that's what Landsharks do, man. We just go. It doesn't matter. We're at the point where we're fighting for the tackle.”
Perhaps the most eye-opening accomplishment was the fact that the Rebels shut out the Aggies in the first half Saturday. That is the first time a Kevin Sumlin-coached team entered halftime without a point in his seven seasons as a head coach. The Aggies ended up with 455 yards Saturday, but with 192 of them coming in the fourth quarter, while the game was out of reach, Wommack was plenty pleased.
“When you play a team like this, if you think your [yardage] numbers are going to be around 200 to 300, you're kidding yourself,” he said. “It's just not going to happen. They're too good in that system. I don't care if you're playing Washington State or Oklahoma or these guys, they have the ability to move the ball.”
Perhaps most importantly, the Rebels have been solid in the turnover department. They picked up three on Saturday, including two defensive scores. They are plus-six in turnover ratio this season, which is third in the SEC and tied for 14th in the country.
There have also been timely turnovers, perhaps none more so than the interception Senquez Golson came up with in the back of the end zone in the final moments of the win over Alabama.
"They've been in the right place, and we've gotten a lot of turnovers,” Wommack said. “This year, the league's got some younger quarterbacks and we're a little more experienced in the secondary, so that's probably where that comes from.”
The Landsharks are to the point where they are irritated when they give up any points. That’s the kind of confidence and expectation level the Rebels defense is operating with these days. If Ole Miss is to make a serious push for the College Football Playoff, which it is in prime position to do, this defense will lead the way.
"It's just to a point where we're too stingy for that,” Nkemdiche said. “We know if somebody scores on us, somebody wasn't doing their job. With the talent level and the people we have on defense, nobody should be able to score on us, no matter what.”