The Peach Bowl had long ended. No. 9 Ole Miss was completely dominated in the game, 42-3, by No. 6 TCU, and senior quarterback Bo Wallace had played one of the worst games of his decorated Rebel career. If the question was already out there, the cries only got louder with each forgettable play Wednesday afternoon and on into the New Year’s Eve night.
Enough time had passed, so Buchanan and Kincade each grabbed a quick shower and gathered their things. But they had to wait. Kincade hustled to put on a shirt. Buchanan, his hair still wet, paused the packing of his team-issued duffle bag.
Unlike the last two years, when they might be one of the first players out the door and in line for the postgame meal, nondescript, local media was gathered around. Questions needed to be answered.
Questions about the heated competition sure to come. About four-star junior college signee Chad Kelly. About what it would take for one of them to take the now-vacant starting job and run with it. About expectations for 2015, sure to be through the roof considering the bar set this season.
Their time is now.
“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.”
“I’m fixing to be working 24/7 starting tomorrow,” Kincade said. “It’s going to be a great competition. Me and Ryan, we’re like best friends. We already know it’s going to be competition time, plus we know another quarterback is coming in.”
Let the competition begin.
Ole Miss finished 2014 with a 9-4 record, including a 5-3 mark in Southeastern Conference games, and the Rebels return the bulk of their starters on both sides of the ball. They reached as high as No. 2 in the country this season, leading many fans and pundits to believe Ole Miss has the potential to compete for a spot in the College Football Playoff a year from now.
The Rebels will be led by the All-American quartet of juniors Laquon Treadwell, Laremy Tunsil, Robert Nkemdiche and Tony Conner. And the offense adds another weapon to its arsenal in the form of transfer wide receiver Damore’ea Stringfellow. Even more, Ole Miss currently boasts a recruiting class ranked by Scout.com as the 17th-best in the country. Leading the way is a pair of four-star offensive linemen in Javon Patterson and Drew Richmond, as well as four-star running back Eric Swinney.
Lacking, of course, is a quarterback.
“I've told those guys you pretty much have the keys to a Ferrari, just don't wreck the thing,” Wallace said. “I tell people all the time of how jealous I am of the quarterback next year. They're going to compete. I've seen them all play, and to be honest with you, I don't know who's going to win the job. But it's going to be a fun battle to watch.”
Kelly is the wildcard.
Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze has yet to make a decision on whether he’ll keep the talented but oft-troubled former Clemson Tiger or cut ties. Kelly signed in December. A week later, he was arrested in Buffalo, N.Y., on charges stemming from a fight outside a night club. His court date is Monday.
“I've told those guys you pretty much have the keys to a Ferrari, just don't wreck the thing.”
Kelly’s talent is undeniable. He led East Mississippi Community College to a national championship in his only season, finishing with 3,906 passing yards, 446 rushing yards and 51 total touchdowns.
“He joined the team, that’s how I feel,” Kincade said, when asked of his reaction to the Kelly signing. “He’s another competitor. Once he comes in, we’re all just going to compete and have fun. Every big college program has at least four good quarterbacks competing against each other. That’s how people get better, that’s how a program gets better.”
“Any big program, you’re going to have to compete,” Buchanan said. “Any position, you’re going to have to compete, especially at quarterback. That’s part of it. I don’t care who they put in front of me, I’ve got to play the best, I’ve got to be the best. That’s just part of it.”
Whatever happens with Kelly, if he makes his way to campus or not, Kincade and Buchanan are going to be given a fair shot to prove they should be the starter come UT Martin Sept. 5 – an opportunity co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Dan Werner said the duo has been waiting for.
“There's no doubt they're ready to start competing,” he said. “They've been waiting for this since they signed with us. I'm looking forward to working with them in the spring.
“Even a couple of weeks ago when Bo was hurt and they were alternating with the ones, in the back of their minds they knew Bo was probably going to be ready and wasn't going to miss the Mississippi State game. Once Bo is gone and we're in spring ball, it's real now. That's when you figure out who's stepping up and who's not.”
Kincade played three series in the Peach Bowl. He completed 1 of 3 passes for 11 yards and carried three times for five yards. For the season, Kincade and Buchanan, who appeared in the game only as the placeholder for field goals, were a combined 28 of 42 for 202 yards and one touchdown.
Ole Miss is entering the voluntary months of the off-season before spring practices being in March. Buchanan said he plans to work on his accuracy and feet, as well as using his legs more. Kincade? “Footwork, accuracy, getting stronger and poise in the pocket.”
The race is on. But whoever crosses the finish line first, they’d do well to heed the advice of Wallace, a three-year starter who dealt with it all in his time at Ole Miss.
“You're going to have to have a strong mindset,” he said. “If you win a bunch of games, people are going to love you. If you lose, you're going to be the guy they feel like lost the game.”
The life of a quarterback.