During the regular season, Ole Miss DC Dave Wommack has been cautiously praising his group, regaling their work ethic, their togetherness, their attitude and their attention to detail.
But he never would "commit" to saying this was his best group in his coaching career because he wanted to dangle that carrot in front of them for motivational purposes throughout the year.
After the Rebels ended the regular season as the number one scoring defense in the country, he was still hesitant to rate them, but he finally gave in a little.
"We've still got a game to play," he smiled, "but I've never had a defense that was number one in the nation in scoring defense. I've had a two and a five and an eight, but never a number one.
"And what makes this one special to me is the league we played in. The SEC West was stacked this year and they still came out as the best scoring defense in the country. Playing at his level and still besing the best against scoring is as good as it gets in college football."
What does that mean to Wommack?
"Well, there are a lot of defensive stats you can throw around to make yourself feel good, but for me, the one I want to be good in is scoring defense because that relates to winning and losing and that's what we strive for, wins, no matter how you get them," he explained.
Dave started to recognize the Reb stoppers may have great prowess toward the end of last spring training.
"Sometimes it's hard to say. Last spring we had several offensive linemen injured, so it was kind of hard to get a true gauge, but toward the end of spring, I knew we were going to be pretty good up front," he said. "I knew we could create a decent pass rush and that we were going to be physical and had a chance to be deep if we could stay healthy, which for the most part we did."
That thought continued for Wommack as the season approached.
"Some of the offensive guys during August practice were coming up to me asking me if we were as good as they thought we were or if they were bad," he chuckled. "Well, I knew we would be pretty good on offense, so I told them - we're pretty good. You aren't bad."
For Dave, it all starts up front, even though the Rebels were blessed with two First-Team All-Americans on the back end in Cody Prewitt and Senquez Golson and the full return of MLB D.T. Shackelford.
"Those guys on the back end will tell you the same thing - it all starts with the front four," Wommack stated. "This is the first time I have ever had double-digit guys who we trusted. It was certainly a luxury.
"At Southern Miss a couple of years I had seven or eight who were really good, but 10-11? No way," he stated. "If you look back to last year, you would have never guessed it. C.J. Johnson and Carlos Thompson were out. We were moving DTs to DE. We didn't have Marquis Haynes, Woodrow Hamilton was injured, Issac Gross was going through his sports hernia issues.
"This year, we got all those guys back, plus guys had more experience and bought into the rotation idea to stay fresh. If you keep all those guys healthy, and they continue to progress, which they did under Chris (Kiffin), then you've got a chance to have something you can hang your hat on defensively."
Staying with the "starts up front" theme, Wommack said he was reluctant to point out one player because they were all vital, but he had a point to make about sophomore DT Robert Nkemdiche.
"I've had people come up to me and ask me what was wrong with Robert because he didn't have great numbers in sacks and tackles," said Dave. "It's the nature of the position. He plays the three-technique for us and he commands extra attention, which frees other people up to make plays.
"He eliminates what people can do on the inside and in the pulling game. Trust me, he plays a vital, vital role in our success and our fans need to understand that. I get it - fans look at who is making plays in the open field and that's what they see. Believe me, he's going to make a whole lot of money doing what he is doing down the road."
Robert was, after all, a Second-Team All-American, Wommack said.
"People who know football know. We have great fans and I love them, but when I am asked that or hear that, I just have to shake my head," Dave stated. "Let me say this - if teams cut him loose and tried to single block him, he'd be leading our team in every category.
"Let me put it another way - we will all see when he's gone what a difference he makes."
While the Rebel defense has gotten the accolades, individual and team, Wommack cautions everyone who will listen that TCU is a "different animal."
"They are very, very good on offense," Wommack noted. "You don't put up those kinds of numbers unless you are talented, well-coached and together as a unit," Wommack stated. "I have watched every one of their games and they do some different things that most others don't do.
"They really don't have route trees - they react to coverages. Their offensive coordinators are Mike Leach disciples in the passing game, but their run game is their own and it's very effective as well. We have our work cut out for us."
But having said that, it's a match Wommack looks forward to.
"When you are competitive, you always want to play the best against the best and I think we have that in this game," he closed. "It's going to be fun."
A special unit against a special unit - head to head.
A football junkies' dream.
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