Mississippi ran off to a 7-0 start and rose to as high as No. 3 in the rankings last year behind a defense that ended up allowing 16.0 points per game for the nation's best mark.
The Rebels have endured some key losses from that unit, though tackle Robert Nkemdiche is not among them.
Nkemdiche and his 17th-ranked team open Saturday at home against a UT-Martin squad that was throttled by two SEC opponents a season ago.
Mississippi finished 9-4 in its third straight winning season as the defense surrendered an SEC-low 21 touchdowns and forced a conference-best 32 turnovers.
That unit lost four key players in linebackers D.T. Shackelford and Serderius Bryant, cornerback Senquez Golson and safety Cody Prewitt. Nkemdiche is back and looking to fare better after registering 35 tackles with just two sacks a year ago while being named a second-team All-American.
"I really want to slow the game down a little more and finish plays," Nkemdiche said. "I'm always in the backfield, but I feel like I've missed a lot of plays that could have been game-changing."
Older brother and linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche and safety Tony Conner are back for a defense that will see an experienced signal-caller this weekend in Jarod Neal, who helped guide UT-Martin to a 6-6 mark in 2014. Neal ranked second in the Ohio Valley Conference with a completion percentage of 63.5.
"Their quarterback is a very accurate passer and they do a good job of unbalancing sides and playing with some tempo," said Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze.
Neal completed 18 of 25 passes for 173 yards and a score in a season-opening 59-14 defeat to Kentucky a year ago. He was 14 of 27 for 159 yards and one TD in a 45-16 loss to then-No. 1 Mississippi State on Nov. 8.
"We've asked Jarod to take more of a leadership role," coach Jason Simpson said. "He's always led by example, but now we need him to be aware of everybody's body language and mental makeup. What I have been pleased to see is that our guys accepted him in that role."
Ole Miss has named Chad Kelly the starting quarterback this weekend after the departure of three-year starter Bo Wallace. Kelly is the nephew of NFL Hall of Famer Jim Kelly, though Freeze said Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade will also see the field.
"Unless something just totally changes my mind-set I expect all three to play," Freeze said. "I don't want to be quoted today that it is locked in stone. It is a very close competition."
Star receiver Laquon Treadwell is back 10 months after a gruesome broken leg and dislocated ankle ended his season after he had a team-high 48 receptions for 632 yards and five TDs in nine games.
"I'm ready to score," Treadwell said. "I'm ready to feel that atmosphere all over again."
The big-play receiver will be needed with the quarterback situation in flux and a rushing attack that was fourth-worst in the SEC a year ago with 4.2 yards per carry. The Rebels split their last four games without him and were routed 42-3 by TCU in the Peach Bowl.
The Skyhawks captured five of their final six 2014 games with the exception the loss to the Bulldogs. Their senior losses were significant, including 1,100-yard rusher Abou Toure, All-American linebacker Tony Bell and four of the five starting offensive linemen.
The Rebels have captured 16 of their last 19 openers and have won six straight at home against non-conference opponents. These schools have never met.
"It is our first opportunity to show what our DNA will be for this year's team," Freeze said. "There's never a duplication of that DNA, regardless of how many you have returning. This team is unique, with a unique makeup."