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Look who wants to play.
Head coach: Hugh Freeze
2nd year: 7-6
5th year overall: 37-13
Off. 30, Def. 26, ST 3
Lettermen Lost: 24
Ten Best Ole Miss Players
1. LB Denzel Nkemdiche, Soph.
2. DE C.J. Johnson, Jr.
3. LB Mike Marry, Sr.
4. WR Donte Moncrief, Jr.
5. DE Robert Nkemdiche, Fr.
6. OT Laremy Tunsil, Fr.
7. RB Jeff Scott, Sr.
8. OG Aaron Morris, Jr.
9. P Tyler Campbell, Sr.
10. CB Charles Sawyer, Sr.
8/31 at Vanderbilt
9/7 SE Missouri
9/14 at Texas
9/21 OPEN DATE
9/28 at Alabama
10/5 at Auburn
10/12 Texas A&M
11/2 OPEN DATE
11/30 at Miss State
Ole Miss has been in a strange spot in the SEC landscape ever since the conference went to the divisional and championship format. Not counting the new guys, Vanderbilt and Kentucky are the only two SEC schools other than Ole Miss to not make an appearance in the SEC championship, and while a few Cotton Bowl appearances have been nice, there have only been three bowls in the last nine years and no dates in Capital One or Outback, much less the BCS, with the 1970 Sugar Bowl against Arkansas the last trip to a current BCS bowl.
Hugh Freeze appears to be on the road to changing that.
Houston Nutt looked like he had things on the right track in 2009, Ed Orgeron recruited well, Tommy Tuberville wasn’t awful and David Cutcliffe had his moments, but it’s tough being the Ole Miss head coach. The expectations are SEC-high at a place that doesn’t have a strong history over the last 30 years compared to the Alabamas and LSUs of the world, but with one big recruiting class coming off a strong 7-6 campaign, and now the excitement is sky high.
But here’s the problem. As amazing as the 2013 class was and as great as it might have been to gets superstar recruits like defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, safety Antonio Conner, receiver Laquon Treadwell, and a slew of other great prospects who’d normally be the shining stars in any other Ole Miss recruiting season, it was just another day at the office for the SEC big boys.
Even with all the talent being brought into Oxford, Ole Miss still ranked sixth in the Scout.com SEC recruiting rankings behind Alabama, Texas A&M, Florida, Georgia and LSU, while Auburn, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and South Carolina all had top 25 classes, too. Getting a great recruiting class puts Ole Miss in the discussion and should make the program competitive, but in the toughest division in the toughest conference in college sports, it doesn’t guarantee anything.
The other issue is the harsh reality of the schedule – much more on this in a moment – with road games at Vanderbilt, Texas, Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State to go along with home games against Texas A&M, LSU, Arkansas and Missouri. So even with 11 starters coming back on defense and almost all the key players back on offense, like the recruiting rankings, this could be one of the 15 best teams in the country and still be no better than third or fourth in the West with an eight-win season being worthy of jumping jacks.
But enough with the doom and gloom. Ole Miss is in the SEC and it’s in the West – that’s the deal, and Freeze isn’t making any excuses or worrying about anyone else. All of a sudden, this is a really, really interesting team with one of the nation’s best pass rushes – and all the linemen back – to go along with tremendous speed and athleticism across the board. The program and the team made a night-and-day improvement in just one year, and Freeze has the look and the attitude of one of the next great college football coaches.
The offense has a terrific group of receivers to play around with, several fast options at running back, and a veteran quarterback in Bo Wallace who might be a major factor if he cuts down on his interceptions.
The special teams should be excellent with the somewhat controversial move of redshirting All-America punter Tyler Campbell last season about to pay off, and the defense will be as dangerous and aggressive as any in America.
No, Ole Miss might not be a lick to win the SEC title, or even the West, any time soon, but Freeze is making the program a player. After decades of frustration, that’s a good enough step for now.
What to watch for on offense: Will the line be a bit stronger in pass protection? Jeff Scott and the running backs are in place, the receiving corps is sound and the passing game should be efficient, but while the machine worked well last year even with the line trying to get everything together, the pass protection was spotty at best. Four starters are back up front – only losing right guard A.J. Hawkins – and there’s a chance that top recruits Laremy Tunsil and Austin Golson step in and produce right away. But no matter what the combination, against the stronger SEC defensive lines, the Ole Miss front five has to do more than hold its own.
What to watch for on defense: What kind of alignment will the Rebels run? They liked to use lots and lots of nickel and dime packages throughout last season, but it didn’t seem to matter too much for a mediocre pass defense that didn’t do nearly enough to stop the big plays. Denzel Nkemdiche and Mike Marry were a terrific twosome at linebacker, but now D.T. Shackelford is back in the mix after spending the last two seasons fighting past knee injuries. If he’s close to being back to form, the coaching staff has to make sure all three great linebackers are on the field as much as possible.
The team will be far better if … the secondary can tighten up. The pass rush was among the best in the nation, and it should be even better this year. The linebacking corps is stellar and there’s depth and athleticism across the board, but now the secondary has to start stopping someone from throwing for over 200 yards. There were too many big plays allowed and too many problems against the more talented quarterbacks on the schedule, and many of the mediocre ones. Aaron Murray of Georgia and David Ash of Texas were the only ones who truly gouged the Rebel defensive backfield, but hitting the 200-yard mark wasn’t a problem for almost anyone on the slate who could throw a forward pass.
The schedule: The excitement is sky high for the Rebels after a whopper of a recruiting class, but the first half of the season could quickly calm everyone down. Going to Vanderbilt will be a tone-setter to start the year, and SE Missouri will be a much-needed cupcake to get everything in place considering what’s coming up next.
The key will be surviving the first half of the year with four of the first five games on the road. After the battle with the RedHawks of SEMO, the Rebels have to go to Texas, get a week off, and then have to deal with dates at Alabama and Auburn. There’s a payoff, though; they don’t have to leave the state after October 5th and have a run of six straight home games before going to Mississippi State. Will that matter against Texas A&M and LSU? The schedule should ease up by the time November rolls around with Arkansas, Troy and Missouri coming to Vaught-Hemingway after an off week.
Best offensive player: Junior WR Donte Moncrief. In terms of pro potential and raw talent, new offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil is the one who’ll probably end up going in the top five, and while running back Jeff Scott will have his moments shining this year, it’s Moncrief who’ll make defensive coordinators worry. Steady throughout last season, he blew up late catching 27 passes in his last four games and lighting up both LSU and Mississippi State. With plenty of talent in the receiving corps, he should see plenty of single coverage to exploit.
Best defensive player: Sophomore LB Denzel Nkemdiche. Actually, it’s little brother Robert who’s the most talented defensive player on the Ole Miss roster, but Denzel proved last season that despite his lack of size, he’s one of the best all-around defensive players in the SEC with a team-leading 82 tackles with three sacks and three picks with 13 tackles for loss. Great at getting all over the field and wreaking havoc, he proved he could show up against the biggest of the big boys with 11 tackles with a sack, 2.5 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles against Alabama.
Key player to a successful season: Junior CB Senquez Golson – or anyone on the other side of Charles Sawyer. The Ole Miss secondary was the problem last season, but there’s talent and depth for all four-to-six spots, depending on the alignment. Sawyer is an all-star talent on the boundary side, but Golson or Louis Covington have to hold their own on the field. They have to make teams pay for staying away from Sawyer.
The season will be a success if … the Rebels win eight games and beat a giant. The schedule is too nasty to beat Alabama, Texas, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State on the road and Texas A&M, LSU, Arkansas and Missouri at home, but the need to be good enough to win at least half of them and not gack against everyone else. They’re not good enough to win the West, but they need to screw up an Alabama, A&M or LSU along the way.
Key game: August 31st at Vanderbilt. Nothing would keep the offseason buzz faster than a road loss to the Commodores to go 0-1 before September. There are too many brutal games ahead to give up a winnable one, and with road games at Texas, Alabama and Auburn following the SE Missouri State layup, and with A&M and LSU after that, it could be a disastrous start to the year without a win in Nashville.
2012 Fun Stats:
- First Quarter Scoring: Ole Miss 116 – Opponents 64
- Fourth Down Conversions: Ole Miss 13-of-18 (72%) – Opponents 8-of-20 (40%)
- Kickoff Return Average: Opponents 24.5 yards – Ole Miss 20 yards
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