Houston Nutt was fired in November after losing to Kentucky, the fourth consecutive loss in an overall losing streak that is currently at seven going into the 2012 season opener vs. the Central Arkansas Bears of the Southland Conference.
Hugh Freeze was hired a month later from Arkansas State, which won the Sun Belt Conference last season, in hopes of leading the Rebels out of a down cycle that has been on-going since before he was the tight ends coach in Oxford in 2006-07.
Ole Miss has one of the toughest schedules in the SEC in 2012, which includes trips to Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and LSU. The Rebels will also welcome Auburn to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium during a stretch within those away games.
Hugh Freeze has rebuilding to do in Oxford.
Last year's starting quarterback, Randall Mackey, is now playing wide receiver. The Ole Miss quarterback competition has two players who may be able to help with the rebuilding project. Dual-threat Barry Brunetti saw limited action last season, completing 19-35 passes for 144 yards. The junior also rushed for 110 yards on 33 attempts.
Another possible starting quarterback, Bo Wallace, redshirted at Arkansas State, where Freeze was the offensive coordinator at the time, before transferring to East Mississippi Community College for the 2011 season. He put up impressive numbers vs. junior college defenses setting school records for passing yards (4,604) and passing touchdowns (53) while leading his team to the NJCAA national title.
Whoever is the quarterback will be handing the football to junior Jeff Scott. Last season against Auburn he rushed for 79 yards on 14 carries and caught two passes for 26 yards and a touchdown.
The winner of the quarterback battle will have last year's leading receiver, Donte Moncrief, back as a target. The sophomore caught three passes against Auburn last season for a team-leading 34 yards.
Donte Moncrief enters the season as the Rebels' go-to receiver.
Freeze's teams at Arkansas State played at a fast tempo on offense and that is the plan in Oxford. Freeze said that strength and conditioning coach Paul Jackson has told him the offseason conditioning workouts are going very well, which is a key component in being able to play at a fast pace.
All the reports from Paul Jackson, I know his strength and conditioning program are centered around preparing them for the tempo we want to play. I think the reports have been very, very well. We still have certain positions that will take longer to get accustomed to playing in that manner, but I do think we're on track.
"I think we're on a good track.," Freeze said. "I felt like at my last stop there was a big advantage and big improvement from year one to year two. Hopefully, we can accelerate that process here over fall camp and get our kids ready.
"I can't say enough about Paul Jackson and his staff. I think they're preparing our kids. I see their bodies changing as they walk through our offices. Looking forward to getting back out on the field with them."
The new head coach admits that installing his offense this season is not going to be easy. "I think that is going to be a juggling act in year one," he pointed out. "How many consistent plays we can do of up-tempo without putting us at a disadvantage because of our lack of depth right now I think is something that we definitely have to weigh in on. I don't believe that we can go out in year one with the situation we have and sell out to that for the entire game, or even for long, consistent periods. I think we would be putting our defense and offense both in some precarious situations.
"We have some young kids that are coming in," Freeze added. "Maybe they can add some depth to us early on that we're very pleased with maybe. Maybe that will increase what we think we can do with that. That's a great point, something we're going to have to balance throughout the year."
The Rebels' defense has been where the biggest problem lies. The 2011 squad gave up a league-worst 419 yards a game. Auburn quarterback Clint Moseley and wide receiver Emory Blake took full advantage of the struggling defense, connecting five times for 71 yards in the 2011 contest. Moseley finished the game with 160 yards through the air and four touchdowns on 12-15 passing.
The Tigers' offense also took advantage of the Ole Miss rush defense last season, which also finished last in the SEC. Onterio McCalebb, who will be back as a senior, contributed 61 yards on 15 attempts as Auburn finished the game with 254 yards on the ground.
With the schedule Ole Miss faces in 2012 even significant strides in the right direction may not be enough to end the conference losing streak. When the Tigers face the Rebel Black Bears on Oct. 13th at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium the home team could have a hard time containing the speedy McCalebb, Tre Mason or any of the other Auburn running backs.
Key Players to Replace:Running back Brandon Bolden rushed for 462 yards on 96 carries and four touchdowns in 2011. Wide receiver Nickolas Brassell ran into academic issues and transferred after catching 24 passes for 336 yards and two touchdowns a season ago. Safety Damien Jackson finished his senior year third on the team with 64 tackles while adding an interception.
All-Star Candidates:Running back Jeff Scott (116 rushes, 529 yards, 6 TDs); wide receiver Donte Moncrief (31 receptions, 454 yards, 4 TDs); linebacker Mike Marry (81 tackles, 5 TFL, 2 sacks); safety Charles Sawyer (70 tackles, 3 TFL, 4 INT)
Charles Sawyer returns as one of the Rebels' best defensive players.
Series Results:Auburn leads 27-9
Sept. 1--Central Arkansas at Ole Miss
Sept. 8--UTEP at Ole Miss
Sept. 15--Texas at Ole Miss
Sept. 22--Ole Miss at Tulane
Sept. 29--Ole Miss at Alabama
Oct. 6--Texas A&M at Ole Miss
Oct. 13--Auburn at Ole Miss
Oct. 27--Ole Miss at Arkansas
Nov. 3--Ole Miss at Georgia
Nov. 10--Vanderbilt at Ole Miss
Nov. 17--Ole Miss at LSU
Nov. 24--Mississippi State at Ole Miss
Key Games for Ole Miss
Mississippi State at Ole Miss--Any victory over an SEC opponent would have to be considered a key game for Ole Miss and its new head coach. One that could really excite the fans would be a victory in the finale vs. Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl rivalry game. Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen is 3-0 vs. the Rebels, a streak that Ole Miss fans are sick and tired of hearing and reading about as the 2012 season approaches.
Worth Noting: Ole Miss is the only team in the SEC West that has not played in the SEC Championship Game.
The Challenge For Auburn: If Auburn keeps its focus the Tigers should be able to improve their all-time record to 10-2 in games played at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. With Ole Miss winning just one SEC game in the last two years, Freeze is shaking up things in a major way with new alignments on offense and defense plus experimenting with players at different positions. However, until the talent level rises Freeze's team will likely be a decided underdog against any SEC team it faces.