2012 Ole Miss Preview - Freeze Warning
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It was tough enough being the sixth best team in the SEC West, and now Ole Miss has to deal with Texas A&M, too.
Head coach: Hugh Freeze
4th year overall: 30-7
Off. 29, Def. 26, ST 5
Lettermen Lost: 16
Ten Best Ole Miss Players
1. LB Mike Marry, Jr.
2. S Charles Sawyer, Jr.
3. RB/PR Jeff Scott, Jr.
4. LB D.J. Shackelford, Jr.*
5. P Tyler Campbell, Sr.
6. CB Wesley Pendleton, Sr.
7. WR Donte Moncrief, Soph.
8. PK Bryson Rose, Sr.
9. LB Joel Kight, Sr.
10. S Tanner Burnes, Sr.
Sep. 1 Central Arkansas
Sep. 8 UTEP
Sep. 15 Texas
Sep. 22 at Tulane
Sep. 29 at Alabama
Oct. 6 Texas A&M
Oct. 13 Auburn
Oct. 20 OPEN DATE
Oct. 27 at Arkansas
Nov. 3 at Georgia
Nov. 10 Vanderbilt
Nov. 17 at LSU
Nov. 24 Mississippi State
New head coach Hugh Freeze has the nearly impossible task of making an inconsistent program consistently great despite playing in the one of the best divisions college football has ever seen. While he has gone an impressive 30-7 in his three years as a head coach, and he knows the program having brought in some of the top talents after serving as the recruiting coordinator and assistant coach in 2006 and 2007, the SEC is a whole new ballgame now.
Ole Miss wants to be among the league's big boys and wants to be in the mix for championships on a regular basis, but it remains the only SEC West team – other than Texas A&M, of course – to not play in an SEC title game and that goal seems further away than ever before.
Unrealistically high expectations aren't necessarily the problem, and neither is the lack of top-shelf talent across the board compared to the other SEC schools. The issue is that everyone else has gotten so much better while Ole Miss has picked the wrong time to hit the skids.
It might seem tempting to point to recent history – going 9-4 in both 2007 and 2008 – and assume that it might just take a little bit of tweaking to turn things back around, but again, things are different. When the Rebels were going 18-8 over the two-year span LSU was spinning its wheels, Arkansas and Mississippi State stunk, and Auburn was mediocre. Meanwhile, Alabama got to a national title level and stayed there.
So where does Ole Miss fit in now?
The model has to be Arkansas; if Bobby Petrino could quickly turn the program into a national power, then there might be hope for Ole Miss to do the same thing. But Freeze has to find a niche. He has to come up with the right blend of talents and he simply has to be the better coach at times in a conference full of heavyweights.
First, he has to make Ole Miss players feel like they can be winners.
New coaches always like to say the team needs to work harder, get in better shape, and take on new attitudes, but in this case it really does apply.
Houston Nutt gave it a good run for a few seasons, but he did nothing with a great group of linemen on both sides of the ball and he couldn't seem to find the skill players to make the offense move. Worse yet, the team played like a bunch of defeated losers over the final stretch.
Freeze is looking for the players to take on more responsibility and to become better leaders, and while that seems to be working, there are still way, way too many loose ends to expect a steady and consistent year.
The quarterback situation that was never settled and never productive last season still has to be figured out. There are academic concerns
with RB Jeff Scott, while CB/WR Nickolas Brassell is already gone after failing to measure up in the classroom. The defensive line needs to find playmakers, and the overall alignment has to come together depending on who's healthy and who's ready. Throw in a slew of new starters on the offensive line, and a new scheme to figure out, and there's a lot to be concerned about.
However, this team could also be the X factor in the West. No, not as a possible champion, but there's depth, athleticism and enough skill to be a spoiler and a surprise team if it gets a few big breaks. There's no pressure and there's still enough youth across the board to see this year as a building block with a payoff to come, but first there has to be something positive to get excited about.
Rebel fans starved for a winner are ready for something special, but after last season, just being competitive again would be a nice start.
What to watch for on offense: The offensive backfield has to come together. No, a team doesn't need an elite offense to win in the SEC, but Ole Miss has to have a functional one and that starts with finding the right mix at quarterback and for the ground game. The coaching staff will adapt to the personnel, but it would ideally like to use the spread offense in some form with some dual-threat mobility at quarterback and a line that can do just enough to open the holes needed for the speedy backs. First, though, a starting quarterback has to emerge. Barry Brunetti has the experience, but it's pure-passing JUCO transfer Bo Wallace who might have the edge on the starting gig when the year kicks off. Jeff Scott is a talented back with NFL upside as a specialist, but he's not a workhorse and the backup situation is sketchy.
What to watch for on defense: Will Ole Miss really run a 4-1-6? The problem is that the defensive weakness is on the line while the depth and talent might be in the back seven with a strong linebacking corps and a potentially fantastic secondary. Even so, until linebacker D.J. Shackelford is back from his knee issues the Stinger position will be likely be manned by the corner-sized Aaron Garbutt. There will be plenty of playing around with the alignment, but nothing is going to work unless a pass rusher emerges up front and the tackles are far stronger against the better running teams.
The team will be far better if … the lines are night and day better. The offensive front was awful considering Bobby Massie and Bradley Sowell were considered to be top-shelf tackle talents, while the defensive line looked every bit like the rebuilding unit it was. There was no pass rush – finishing last in the SEC in both sacks and tackles for loss – and the run defense was horrific. The O line did what it could to generate a push, but with no passing game the Rebels saw defense after defense tee off on the backfield. There's enough speed and athleticism at the key spots to come up with some nice numbers, but forget about any major improvements unless the big guys start doing their jobs.
The schedule: Enjoy the opening few weeks against Central Arkansas and UTEP, and have fun with the 3-1 start with a trip to Tulane coming after the home showdown with Texas, because the schedule gets really bad, really fast.
Getting a home game against Vanderbilt from the East should help offset the road trip to Georgia, but there isn't a sure-thing win on the schedule after going to New Orleans to face the Green Wave on September 22nd. The SEC schedule opens at Alabama, and if that wasn't bad enough, the Rebels have to go on the road to deal with Arkansas and LSU, too. If that wasn't bad enough, the games against the Hogs and the Tigers come in a stretch of three road games in four weeks, with the other away date at Georgia. At least the Egg Bowl against Mississippi State is at home to close things out.
Best offensive player: Junior RB Jeff Scott. There's a lot of breath holding to see if he can be academically eligible, but assuming he will be he'll be one of the SEC's most dangerous weapons. The coaches will make sure he gets the ball in his hands in a variety of ways with gamebreaking ability from anywhere on the field, and next-level punt return skills to help bail the team out of bad field position. If all goes according to plan he'll be the leading rusher and a total yardage star.
Best defensive player: Junior LB Mike Marry. The defensive front needed Marry to grow into a star after Shackelford was knocked out for the year last spring with a knee injury, and he did. The team's leading tackler came up with 81 stops with two sacks and five tackles for loss. He has the bulk and the size to star in the middle, but he'd be better suited as a hybrid pass rusher on the outside.
Key player to a successful season: Senior NT Gilbert Pena. The quarterback situation will get the spotlight and No. 2 running back is a concern, but the Rebels have to start the rebuilding job by getting more out of the woeful run defense. Pena is a career reserve who'll get a long look at the starting nose tackle job, and while he's quick and athletic for a bowling ball of a 6-2, 325-pounder, his job will be to hold on and gum things up on the inside.
The season will be a success if … the Rebels win five games. Central Arkansas, UTEP and Tulane have to be mortal locks considering the brutal rest of the slate. Beating Vanderbilt at home is a must and then has to come the big upset to be in the hunt for a bowl game. It would be sweetest if a sixth win could happen at home against Mississippi State, but screwing up an Auburn, Texas A&M, or Georgia would be fun, too.
Key game: Nov. 24 vs. Mississippi State. It's not exactly like Dan Mullen has turned MSU into a powerhouse, and it's not like he's taking all the top talent away from Ole Miss, but the last three Egg Bowls and five of the last seven have gone to the Bulldogs. While rivalry games mean more when they lead to something big, it would be a huge shot in the arm to the program and to the Freeze era to break the losing streak during Thanksgiving weekend.
2011 Fun Stats:
- 3rd quarter scoring: Opponents 122 – Ole Miss 31
- Sacks: Opponents 34 for 262 yards – Ole Miss 13 for 95 yards
- Penalties: Ole Miss 80 for 692 yards – Opponents 60 for 460 yards
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