Tuesday Top Ten: Why Rebel fans should be optimistic


Football season is nearly upon us, my friends. We are a mere 46 days away from the ball being teed off in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium as the Rebels taken on the Skyhawks of UT-Martin. While that game may not be the most exhilarating season opener in Ole Miss history, it serves more as a reminder. A reminder that the Grove is here, fall road trips are back, and that SEC football is just around the corner.

The 2014 season was a big one for head coach Hugh Freeze’s club. They eclipsed their win total from the previous year yet again and rose all the way up to No. 3 in the nation before tight losses and debilitating injuries caused their fall from grace. On the upside, 2015 is the year Rebel fans have marked for years as the one to reclaim national significance, and more importantly, a shot at a four national title. In today’s Tuesday Top Ten, we detail the 10 reasons to be the most optimistic about this year’s squad.

Sep 7, 2013; Oxford, MS, USA; Mississippi Rebels head coach Hugh Freeze leads the team to the field before the game against the Southeast Missouri State Redhawks at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

10. Manageable Out-of-Conference Slate

The schedule’s always more exciting when there’s a Boise State like last year or a Florida State like next year, but a pedantic OOC lineup isn’t the worst thing in the world. Ole Miss has UT-Martin and Fresno State at home to start the year, then three conference games, New Mexico State at home and a trip up to Memphis. While the Tigers gave Ole Miss a run last year and return a lot of starters from a 10-win team, none of the four should instill fear in Rebel fans. Chalk up four wins that are just a shade above a bye week, stay healthy, and breathe easy that one-third of your schedule is in the books.

Sure, it killed Baylor’s shot at the playoffs last year, but that’s in large part because the Big 12 was so poor anyway. Being in the SEC West, Ole Miss will have no shortage of quality opponents to point to this year.

9. Continuity on the Coaching Staff

Since Freeze took over in 2011, he has only lost two coaches and both were to better circumstances: defensive backs coach Wesley McGriff to the New Orleans Saints in the same capacity, and linebackers coach Tom Allen to South Florida as their defensive coordinator. The rest of the coaching staff from coordinators down to position coaches have remained the same.

Now, that may not seem like a big deal to a lot of folks. But it is critical when trying to develop a program and a culture. Players know they can trust their position coach and coordinator, can get the system from someone that’s been involved for years with it, and if they struggle in-game, who better to coach them up than a guy that’s seen them in practice since they got to school?

8. Home Sweet Revenge

Three of the four teams Ole Miss lost to last season are back on the schedule this year. Two of those three, Arkansas and LSU, will have to come to the Vaught this time around. Ole Miss was undefeated and No. 3 in the nation when they fell to an admittedly average LSU team in Baton Rouge 10-7. It was the epitome of the moniker we came to know as “Bad Bo.” Wallace talked back with unruly fans, threw an interception that cut a comeback attempt short, and left the field before the game ended.

Arkansas saw the warrior side of Wallace come up short, way short. It was a 30-0 beatdown at the hands of a team that is 3-21 in SEC play the last three years. Wallace was hobbled on a bum ankle and the backups looked overwhelmed and the game was quickly out of reach.

This time, it’s personal, very personal. Ole Miss gets both teams at home at the tail end of the season and the Landsharks should be thirsty for blood. There’s no doubt the Rebels will be geared up to play in those two.

Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

7. Chad Kelly

I know, I know, quarterback is a question mark. But it’s well-documented how Wallace was up and down in his career, often through no fault of his own. Kelly is more mobile than his predecessor, does not have a record of injuries like what plagued Wallace, and he has been lauded by the coaching staff all offseason.

Not only is he football-smart and able-bodied, Kelly has all the tools a guy can need. He has an experienced offensive line, weapons on every side of him, and if he can’t get it done with that, there’s bound to be someone on the roster who can.

6. Hugh Freeze Incline

Unlike the coach before him, Freeze has kept a steady incline through his first few seasons. After taking over for a team that won just two games the year before, he won seven games, including a bowl win and returning the Egg Bowl trophy to its rightful place. The following year, he won eight games with the most heralded freshman class in school history. Last year, he won nine games, took the team to a New Year’s Six Bowl, and spent much of the season ranked near the top.

This is not just a cute or fun trend, there are reasons behind it. When Freeze took over, not only was there a lack of scholarship players on the team, but also a lack of talent, and a surplus of drug, grade and behavioral issues. Freeze now has his guys: ones that go to class, understand what a moral compass is, and players that fit the system. He’s accumulated depth at every position sans tight end. Not only that, but Freeze is also learning along the way. Remember, he was only a head coach on the FBS level for one year before taking over his current SEC gig. You weren’t a world-beater when you first started your career, but you got better. That’s what Freeze is doing.

Dec 31, 2014; Atlanta , GA, USA; Mississippi Rebels offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil (78) prepares to block TCU Horned Frogs defensive tackle Terrell Lathan (90) during the first quarter in the 2014 Peach Bowl at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

5. Knowing How to Win

There were a lot of close calls in Years One and Two. The team did not know how to close out games as very few of them had experience on the teams that won consecutive Cotton Bowls. They did not believe they could win or even compete with the big boys. That territory was unfamiliar to them.

Now, there are players on the roster that have beaten every team in the West. They’ve experienced winning, have grown as a team and are ready to take their next big step. The Golden State Warriors didn’t go from a cellar-dweller to a champion overnight, they had to make the playoffs, win a series, then they were ready for the big time. This team is now ready.

4. Sensational Secondary

It’s hard to imagine a unit getting better after they lost two first-team All-Americans to graduation. That just may be the case for the Rebel secondary this year. While they lost cornerback Senquez Golson and safety Cody Prewitt, along with cornerback Cliff Coleman, they still return a plethora of pop. Returning are: safeties Tony Conner, Chief Brown, Trae Elston and C.J. Hampton, and corners Tee Shepard, Mike Hilton, Carlos Davis, Kailo Moore and Kendarius Webster. All of which had significant playing time last year, except for Shepard who by all accounts is otherworldly in practice. Add to that mix, junior college transfer Tony Bridges.

There’s so much to like about this secondary. First off, there’s size and length in guys like Shepard, Webster and Bridges. A lot of hitting power in Conner, Elston and Hampton. Then there’s speed in Davis and Moore. Lastly, all-around experience and heady play from players like Hilton and Brown. The coaches can do a lot with a secondary as deep and versatile as this one. Expect a lot of turnovers from this group.

3. Offensive Line Depth

It has plagued the Rebels for years, particularly in the first few years under Freeze. Houston Nutt practically left a barren cupboard in these five spots. Now, the Rebels could have their best offensive line in decades, even better than the one featuring NFL mainstays Michael Oher and John Jerry on the left side.

Consensus top five draft pick Laremy Tunsil will anchor down the blind side as likely the top player in his position in the country. After Tunsil, the other four starters are seniors with a multitude of experience: left guard Aaron Morris, center Ben Still, right guard Justin Bell, and right tackle Fahn Cooper. Morris and Still are healthy and stronger than ever while Bell has dropped a considerable amount of weight and Cooper was very consistent last season. The first string is strong, but their backups are no slouches either. Guards Javon Patterson and Rod Still are former five-star prospects and could supplant the seniors ahead of them. Robert Conyers and Sean Rawlings are each capable of playing multiple positions and will be key assets in spelling the first string.

2. Aerial Attack

Earlier, we alluded to the weapons at Kelly’s disposal. Well here’s the arsenal: All-American and future first round pick Laquon Treadwell, fellow All-American and Mel Kiper’s top underclassman tight end Evan Engram, and every other receiver that caught a pass last year minus Vince Sanders. Add into that mix an imposing Washington transfer, Damore’ea Stringfellow, and highly-touted freshmen Van Jefferson and Damarkus Lodge, and you have a lot of guys which to throw the ball.

Treadwell and Engram are arguably the best players at their position in the country and will attract a lot of attention from opposing defenses. Luckily for the Rebels, that opens up a lot of space for running backs as well as other talented targets like Cody Core, Quincy Adeboyejo and Markell Pack.

Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

1. Rush Men

Is there a scarier defensive line in America right now? Three of the four starters, Robert Nkemdiche, Issac Gross and Marquis Haynes have either been All-Americans or Freshman All-Americans. Add into that a hybrid run stopper and pass rusher Fadol Brown and you have a stout front four. It doesn’t fall off much after that as seniors Woodrow Hamilton and Channing Ward come to play, or juniors John Youngblood and D.J. Jones get thrown in the mix. Not only do those eight players have immense game, but so do redshirt freshmen like Breeland Speaks, Victor Evans and Garrald McDowell.

A good secondary makes for a good defensive line, because they have more time to get to the quarterback when all of the targets are blanketed. A good defensive line makes for a good secondary, because if a quarterback gets pressured he tends to make errant throws. What happens if both units are already scary good? We’ll find out Sept. 5 when Ole Miss takes on UT-Martin.