The Tigers are 5-0 (2-0 AAC) on the year and winners of 12 straight games, the third-longest streak in FBS football. They’re led by quarterback Paxton Lynch and a high-powered offensive attack that ranks No. 4 in the country in scoring (47.8 ppg). Lynch has completed 70.6 percent of his passes for 1,535 yards, 10 touchdowns and no interceptions.
They’ll host the Rebels at the Liberty Bowl Saturday at 11 a.m. on ABC.
“They’re explosive at every position,” Hilton said. “Paxton, he's the leader of that offense. He gets them going. Everything goes through him. One thing that stands out is under pressure he’ll stand there, make the throws and take hits. We gotta make sure we get pressure in his face. He’s good making those throws. We got to come with high energy.”
Hilton isn’t surprised by Memphis’ success.
“I knew that for sure based off of last year,” he said. “We were the last guys to beat them. They haven’t lost since. Everybody knows how big this weekend is going to be, They just cracked the Top 25, we're still in Top 15. The rivalry keeps on building, and the heat's building up.”
Ole Miss has won six consecutive games in a series dating back to 1921. The Rebels won 24-3 at home last season, allowing just 104 total yards, including 23 rushing yards on 31 carries. Excluding one 42-yard pass play the first quarter, the Rebel defense surrendered all of 62 total yards on the other 61 plays from scrimmage.
Hilton expects a different game this time around.
“They have a lot more playmakers than last year,” he said. “Lynch is one of best kept secrets in college football. He’s putting up great numbers, and he’s got a lot of guys around him making plays.
“Everybody has to be on their ‘A’ game. None of their guys lack skill. They can all make plays out of backfield and on edges. We feel we can force (Lynch) into mistakes. He's a good quarterback and has playmakers all around him, but we have a defensive line that can get in his face, rattle him and cause him to make errant throws. And on the back end, we’ve got guys that can go up and attack the ball. That can go hand in hand.”
Ole Miss lost starting “husky” (the team’s hybrid linebacker/safety) Tony Conner for at least four weeks after its win over Alabama three weeks ago. The Rebels struggled to replace him initially, but after some reshuffling, they showed improvement in a 52-3 win over New Mexico State.
Hilton was shifted over to replace Conner following a couple of tough games for backup A.J. Moore, allowing C.J. Hampton to move into the starting lineup at free safety and Trae Elston to return to his natural position at strong safety. The starting cornerbacks, Tony Bridges and Kendarius Webster, remained the same.
“All five of us mesh pretty well back there,” Hilton said. “We have more experience, more speed out there now. We miss Tony. He was a big piece, but with the guys we have in place we aren’t losing a step, and we have added some depth.”
Hilton has been credited with 26 tackles on the year. He made four tackles against NMU, and he also notched an interception. He’s the team leader in passes defended.
Overall, Ole Miss’ defensive numbers are down from a year ago, when the Rebels led the country in scoring defense. They rank sixth in the SEC and 31st nationally in scoring defense, and seventh in the SEC and 36th in the nation in total defense. They’re fourth in the SEC and 38th nationally in pass efficiency defense.
“We’re just lacking little things,” Hilton said. “Alignment’s a step slower, assignments a little off. We feel like as the season’s gone on we’ve progressed a bit. We have a lot more depth with guys that can play. But senior leadership has to take over to make sure guys are lined up and ready to go.
“We’re not worried about where we stand. We know what we can control and what we can do on the field. The guys we have can still match what we did last year. It’s a long season to go, and guys are still hungry to make plays and make sure we’re still one of the top defenses in the country.”