COLUMN: On From Here

ATLANTA, Ga. – Fans poured out quickly, the red of polo shirts and dresses giving way to the red of empty Georgia Dome seats.

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The 2014 Ole Miss football season ended with a thud, a forgettable 42-3 loss to No. 6 TCU. And really, as ugly as the scoreboard was, it could have been worse. Now the No. 9 Rebels are left to face the future with plenty of questions and not so many answers.

“All it means is that it’s never going to happen again,” Ole Miss tight end Evan Engram said postgame. “I appreciate the seniors so much for what they’ve been through, this program and how far they’ve gotten. But the guys coming back, we’re going to prepare.

“We’re going to use this loss as a tool to fuel us every day in the off-season to make sure that something like this never happens again.”

There are obvious storylines as Ole Miss turns towards winter workouts, spring practices, summer strength and conditioning and fall camp.

Who plays quarterback? How will Laquon Treadwell, Denzel Nkemdiche and now Laremy Tunsil respond following serious ankle injuries? Tunsil, the most important player on the roster, broke his ankle in the final minutes of the second quarter. An already disastrous day somehow found a way to get worse.

Ole Miss has a national championship caliber roster returning. But as Wednesday proved, so much of what the Rebels do on both sides of the ball depends – shockingly – on its best players playing well.

Laquon Treadwell, save maybe for the Egg Bowl, was sorely missed in the final four games. TCU allowed Ole Miss wide receivers no separation. Treadwell, who can create on his own, would’ve helped immensely. When Tunsil went down, his replacement, Fahn Cooper, promptly gave up a sack to end the first half. A microcosm of Tunsil’s value. He’s irreplaceable.

Will they be 100 percent healthy once August rolls around? Tunsil was widely considered a top-5 pick in next year’s NFL Draft. Can he return to form? Same for Treadwell. He, too, is regarded as a potential first-to-second round pick.

Tunsil, it should be noted, was in good spirits in the locker room, though he was on crutches and had his right foot heavily taped.

“He’s such a close dude to me, man. We’re real close friends,” now-junior defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche said of Tunsil. “It just sucks because I know he’s a great football player. It sucks for him to break his foot like that in the bowl game, last game of the season. It’s going to slow his process in the off-season, but he’s going to recover good.”

Bowl games typically have little or no impact on recruiting. Prospects, unlike fans, aren’t so easily swayed by one-game outcomes, especially when they’re not all that emotionally invested.

Still, four-star linebacker commit Leo Lewis announced on Twitter during the game he was dropping his three official visits, which included a trip to Ole Miss Jan. 23. He plans to schedule three others. Five-star defensive lineman CeCe Jefferson remains in play, as does five-star WR DaMarkus Lodge, four-star DL Kyle Phillips (but for how long?), four-star WR Van Jefferson, three-star guard Kendrick Norton and a host of others.

If Ole Miss proved anything in its blowout loss to TCU it’s that for how close the Rebels are to being among the nation’s elite, they have talent gaps. They need more high-quality players. Immediate-impact talent.

Take quarterback, for example. For better or worse, Bo Wallace, the good and bad version, is gone. Much of what you’ll read from here until kickoff against UT Martin Sept. 5 will be focused on who replaces him. Devante Kincade played sparingly Wednesday. Ryan Buchanan never saw the field. Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze has to soon make a decision on whether to keep or cut ties with four-star junior college transfer Chad Kelly.

Regardless, I have a hunch Ole Miss isn’t done exploring the quarterback market.

“It’s time to go,” Buchanan said. “I think both me and Kincade, we’ve both looked forward to this day. It doesn’t come as a shock. Bo’s done. We’ve prepared for this. We know spring’s going to be a big deal for us, and whoever we compete with, I have confidence I can run this. But I’ve got to show it in spring and I’ve got to show it in fall camp next year. I’ll be ready to go.”

Ole Miss was riding high following the Egg Bowl. The Rebels completely reversed course from its 30-0 loss at Arkansas. A fan base growing somewhat uneasy was fully back on board.

Then the Peach Bowl happened. TCU, likely the preseason No. 1 team, played like the far superior team. The Rebels had nothing to offer, their offensive line dominated, No. 1 scoring defense picked apart and senior quarterback, for all the good he did in his Ole Miss career, forced to exit with one of the worst performances of his career.

Chalk it up to a bad day if you’d like. The reality is Ole Miss dropped its last three games away from home by an 82-10 margin.

“Like coach Freeze always says, this DNA will never be seen again. This team will never be mentioned again,” Kincade said. “We made a lot of good ups and downs. But coming in next year, it’s going to be a different story.”

The grounds crew acted quickly to remove the midfield Peach Bowl logo once the clock struck zero and the stands emptied completely. Methodically they worked, swipe after swipe with their golf cart until all that was left was a green circle of nothing but Dome turf.

It’s as if the game had never happened. Ole Miss would like to think it never did. For coaches, players and fans alike, the sting will fade away eventually. In the end, the Peach Bowl will go down as nothing more than another score in the bowl history section of the media guide. So it goes.

What happens next is the fascinating part.

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