This was the year.
The year Ole Miss competed for Atlanta. The year a roster led by four potential first-round NFL Draft picks left its indelible impression on a program that, not even four years ago, toiled through the worst season in its long, sometimes tortured, history. The year everything fell into place and the Rebels finally arrived - as a playoff, maybe even national championship team.
Then Saturday happened.
Ole Miss made the short one-hour drive to the Liberty Bowl to face Memphis. And lost. In the same season it went to Alabama and won for the first time since 1988. In the same season it was ranked No. 3 in the country. In the same season Sports Illustrated put the Rebels on its cover.
Ole Miss is never, ever supposed to lose to Memphis.
The Rebels are 5-2 (2-1 SEC) on the season. Yes, they still have everything in front of them, and the math says they can win all of their remaining games and everything Ole Miss fans have longed for (like, say, an SEC championship game appearance) is still on the table. But it doesn’t feel that way, not even remotely. And to suggest all will be well eventually, that a few tweaks here and there will solve all of the Rebels’ problems, would be disingenuous.
Memphis was a nightmare. The game when everything changed.
Make no mistake, Hugh Freeze has done remarkable things in his three-plus years at Ole Miss. The program was at rock bottom when he took over for Houston Nutt, and his first season was inspiring in that he took a team pretty much void of FBS-level talent and reached the BBVA Compass Bowl. Another step was taken in year two, including the arrival of the vaunted class of 2013 led by Laremy Tunsil, Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell and Tony Conner. Last season? A 9-3 record and Playoff Six game.
Now Freeze faces the toughest challenge of his coaching career. Because what was unthinkable to almost everyone who’s ever been around Ole Miss - the dream of championships - was seemingly coming together. The fab four represented what the future could be, and there wasn’t a single Ole Miss fan who didn’t point to 2015 as the season the five-star crew would take the Rebels to heights unseen.
But when the final minutes ticked away Saturday, it was Freeze and players who were bolting for the exits, heads hung low, while an upstart Memphis team celebrated an upset win, its fans pouring onto the field. And the problem - and what’s probably most unsettling for Ole Miss fans - is the best team on the field won.
David didn’t take down Goliath. Two Davids squared off, and the one with the better-equipped slingshot won. The game was long decided before the sea of Memphis blue flooded the field. And that, I’d say, is probably what’s so hard to swallow today for Ole Miss fans. This wasn’t the script. Not in year four. Not when Freeze himself said prior to the season expectations had been raised and the team was wanting to embrace them.
Memphis is much-improved and Justin Fuente is headed for the payday of a lifetime. But Ole Miss doesn’t lose to Memphis. Period.
“Our expectations have risen since we got here,” Freeze said in August. “Our brand certainly has changed. Nationally, we’re a factor now. We’re not going away.”
Ole Miss wasn’t a factor Saturday. And now they’re slip-slidin’.
“There’s something missing, for sure, and that’s my responsibility,” Freeze said following the 37-24 loss. “I thought we had a really good week of preparation. Take nothing away from Memphis, they’re a good football team. I don’t want anything to sound like I’m not saying that. But we’re obviously not locked in totally.”
Questions abound. Ole Miss can’t run the football. It proved as much last year, and it’s more of the same through seven games. The Rebels totaled 40 yards on 24 carries against a Tiger defense that ranked third in the AAC (116.3 yards) in rushing defense. That can’t happen at this juncture of Freeze’s tenure, and the same can be said for the lack of SEC-caliber linebackers. Both deficiencies can be directly tied to recruiting misses.
Sure, Leo Lewis and Clifton Garrett have yet to do much in their careers, but what about Nyles Morgan, Gerri Green, Kenny Young and Duke Riley? Same goes for the offensive line, from Denver Kirkland and Dan Skipper to Drew Richmond and Toby Weathersby. Misses always happen in recruiting. Schools don’t land every top recruit they target. But that’s what Plan Bs are for.
Ole Miss’ 2013 linebacker class was Marcus Robinson and Ray Ray Smith. In 2014, the Rebels signed DeMarquis Gates, who looks the part of a future all-league-caliber player, and Christian Russell. Ole Miss started Denzel Nkmediche and Terry Caldwell at linebacker Saturday. Nkemdiche, because of injuries, hasn’t been able to return to the dynamic play of his redshirt freshman season. Caldwell is a junior college transfer signed in the 2015 class.
(An aside: Ole Miss signed 28 players in the “program-changing” 2013 class. Only 10, and that includes Kailo Moore and Derrick Jones, are contributing.)
Ole Miss’ top three offensive linemen are former five-star and No. 1 offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil, who was a tremendous land for Freeze and Co., Fahn Cooper and Javon Patterson. Cooper is a junior college transfer. Patterson is a true freshman playing with an ankle injury. Justin Bell was signed by Nutt, as was Aaron Morris. The 2014 class was strong. Cooper is starting. Rod Taylor is hurt, otherwise he’d be starting, too. Sean Rawlings has started every game at right tackle, but he still needs time, as does Jordan Sims. Tyler Putman could help eventually.
The problem is, Ole Miss can ill-afford to wait. Not now. Not this year.
The issues are what they are, and we all know them. They’re as clear as day. Ole Miss can’t get off the field on third down, or convert third downs, for that matter. Flawed short-yardage strategy. An inability to sack opposing quarterbacks. On and on and on.
Freeze has his work cut out for him, but it’s his work to do. He deserves credit for owning the loss. “It’s a bad day, and I’m disappointed and hurt for the Ole Miss people more than words can really say because I understand it,” he said. “I know how they feel about their program. They deserve better today, for sure.”
It’s on Freeze to make for better days. Because this was the year. Instead, though, the journey has reached a crossroads. Which way will this team go?