Expectations

HOOVER, Ala. - Ole Miss Coach Hugh Freeze was asked a pointed question at SEC Media Days Thursday morning. What are his expectations for the 2014 Rebel football team?

Expectations.

In college football, they present a conundrum of sorts.

You want them to be high, but they also need to be realistic. Where is the fine line?

For the 2014 Ole Miss Rebels, what should they be?

Entering Coach Hugh Freeze's third season, the program he has directed has shown steady improvement in many areas, record included, from 7-6 to 8-5.

In his first two seasons, he has guided the Rebels to two bowl appearances and two bowl victories.

He has quite a few experienced, talented players at his disposal.

Acadmemically and behaviorally, things have improved by leaps and bounds. No summer headlines.

It may have been the wrong venue to ask, these SEC Media Days, where everyone is so guarded with their answers and most of the questions are "softballs," but what the heck?

What are Freeze's expectations for the Rebs and what does he feel the expectations of the fan base should be?

"We are better,"said Freeze. "I know we are a better team and our kids know we are a better team. I am very excited about this team and how far we have come in a short period of time.

"But I know that everyone in our league and our division will be better too. Nobody is going backwards in this league. I feel we should be relevant in the SEC."

So what is his "bottom line" on expectations?

"Our expectations are high, but I'm also a realist. Every game is a battle and you have to perform," he added. "The league is wide open, to me, because there are so many good teams. Where do we fit in? The season will tell that. We have to perform."

That's his take, which would be hard to argue with. In fact, this hack agrees almost word for word.

It's all about reality, to me.

And here is my take on Ole Miss' 2014 football reality.

The Rebels had a very good spring. From all reports, the offseason has been off the charts good.

The few players I have bumped into around Oxford are enthusiastic and aren't shooting for a winning season and a "minor" bowl. They want, and are striving for, more - a lot more.

They feel they have put in the work and it's time to reap the rewards. They are heading into this season with a higher level of confidence based on past results and knowing what they have done to get to this point.

The culture of work, leadership, togetherness, single-minded goals and so on permeates throughout the program.

In spring, we saw quite a few positive signs that were reported on repeatedly.

The defense is much, much closer to being a solid two-deep, and by that we mean there isn't a lot of dropoff, if any, when the Rebels call on the backups.

The pass rush - if good health prevails - has a chance to be dynamic, versus last year of virtually non-existent. The return of C.J. Johnson and Carlos Thompson, the addition of spring phenom Marquis Haynes and Fadol Brown being eligible after sitting out last year due to transfer rules, makes one's mouth water in regards to chasing the league's quarterbacks around.

Inside, Robert Nkemdiche made a big jump in spring training and will just keep getting better as he gains more experience. Issac Gross, Woody Hamilton and Bryon Bennett are all proven, if not special.

At linebacker, D.T. Shackelford has returned to his "old" form, Serderius Bryant returns as the Rebs' leading tackler and Keith Lewis is a seasoned veteran. When Denzel Nkemdiche, a former All-SEC player, returns in good graces and Christian Russell learns a little more, LB should be a strength. Temario Strong is close to breaking out as well.

The secondary improved by leaps and bounds in spring training due to experience and the leadership of All-American Cody Prewitt. Proven performers like Tony Conner, Mike Hilton, D.J. Jones, Senquez Golson, Trae Elston and so on are ready to go. Anthony Alford will be a big piece of this puzzle as well, despite no experience at this point. And can you say Tee Shepard?

On offense, it has to start with QB Bo Wallace, who is supremely confident, is healthy and knows the offense inside and out. Look for a banner season from Bo, who is anxious for Rebel fans to see him healthy for the first time.

Running backs? A whole stable.

Wideouts? Start with Laquon Treadwell and Vincent Sanders and throw in Quincy Adeboyejo, Collins Moore (currently injured but should be back early in the season), Cody Core, et al. Frosh Markell Pack is expected to make a contribution as well. The depth could be better there, but the main guys are primo.

Evan Engram, a highly productive player while healthy during a remarkable freshman season, is back, bigger and stronger. Channing Ward and Nick Parker add muscle and Sammie Epps is expected to be an Engram clone. (Engram is key - we saw what happened last year when he went down.)

The offensive line is the question mark, but is it as big a question mark as some think? When you start with Laremy Tunsil and Aaron Morris, and mix in Justin Bell, how bad can it be? Sure, depth is an issue, but what year hasn't it been on the OL? Bouldin, Still, Conyers - it's their turn. They have paid their dues. They will step up. (Fahn Cooper and Rod Taylor - don't forget them.)

The kicking game is new and unproven, but spring proved they can get the job done. The next step is getting it done in a game - a natural progression.

So, what are realistic expectations?

Freeze is correct - the Rebels are better, but so is the league, overall. It will be a dogfight every week. That's what makes it fun.

My personal expectations are simple.

This is a good football team on paper. Can they be great? It takes great to go to Atlanta, history shows.

Nobody knows the answer.

Two years ago, Auburn didn't win a league game and played for the national title last year. Missouri won one or two league games two years ago and played in Atlanta last year for the SEC title.

This league is a crap shoot. Now, more than ever, it says here, anyone can beat anyone on a given Saturday.

But why not Ole Miss? Why not this team?

They have good enough talent. Most key positions have experience. They have the proper mindset. The plan the coaches have given them is proven and solid.

My expectations? Fun and excitement and. . .

. . . why not the Rebels?


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