Sugar Bowl win in hand, Rebels thinking championship in 2016

Ole Miss is not even a full two days removed from its dominating, 48-20 over Oklahoma State in the Sugar Bowl.

But the Rebels are looking ahead to 2016 anyway.

Gone are a number of key contributors to a team that finished 10-3 overall and (the first 10-win season for Ole Miss since 2003), tallied five wins over ranked teams in one season for the first time in program history and came ever so close to the school’s first-ever SEC championship appearance.

There’s no denying the Rebels are losing some significant players. The seniors alone include defensive backs Mike Hilton and Trae Elston, linebacker C.J. Johnson, defensive end Channing Ward, offensive linemen Aaron Morris, Ben Still and Justin Bell, running back Jaylen Walton and wide receiver Cody Core. Add in the likely departures of Laquon Treadwell and Laremy Tunsil, along with the already-announced departure of Robert Nkemdiche, and Ole Miss will have plenty of holes to fill between now and kickoff against Florida State Sept. 5.

Still, with a core in place headlined by quarterback Chad Kelly and tight end Evan Engram, Ole Miss appears - on paper - to be a way-too-early contender for the College Football Playoff.

“We’re not ready to settle for anything less than a national championship,” Engram said. “That’s the way we work, that’s what we wake up and think about. That’s what our drive is for. We don’t settle for subpar. We were excited to be on (the Sugar Bowl) stage. This is a New Year’s Six bowl. But next year we’re going to be working for a national championship.”

Ole Miss currently sits with a consensus top-3 recruiting class. On the way are such highly-rated prospects as five-star quarterback Shea Patterson, five-star offensive lineman Greg Little, five-star wide receiver D.K. Metcalf and others.

But not to be forgotten are the little-used and redshirt players of 2015 who are likely to step into much bigger roles next season, from former five-star wide receiver Damarkus Lodge and four-star wide receiver Van Jefferson, to defensive linemen Ross Donelly and Austrian Robinson, linebacker Shawn Curtis and defensive backs Jalen Julius and Montrell Custis.

“We have playmakers across the board and guys just waiting to get their shot,” Engram said. “We’re going to have a lot of great leadership next year, and the coaching staff has their feet well-put in this offense and how we can really dissect some teams. And our defense is always going to have some dogs ready to make some plays. We’re looking forward to getting back to work after enjoying this one a little bit.”

“I actually think Ole Miss is going to be better,” Tunsil said. “I really think Ole Miss is going to be better. With the recruits they’ve got coming in now and the team chemistry already in place, I think we’re going to be pretty great.”

Kelly is the key, of course. He set a number of records in his debut season, finishing as the single-season Ole Miss leader in total offense, passing yards, passing touchdowns, pass completions, completion percentage and more. 

He’s just the start; building block No. 1 of the Ole Miss football team head coach Hugh Freeze will roll out in 2016. How the remainder of the roster shakes out will be decided in the coming months, starting with National Signing Day the first Wednesday in February and on into spring practices and forward.

What’s settled - as least in the minds of Hilton and Engram - is the future of Ole Miss football.

“Guys are ready to take this program to another level,” Hilton said. “(The Sugar Bowl) was a big stepping stone in seeing where this next season is going to lead to. I feel like it’s going to keep on growing. Those guys are ready. They had the opportunity, they showed what they can do. Now it’s time for them to step up and take the leadership roles and just keep this train rolling.”

“Look at the stage we were on (Friday night),” Engram said. “Only night game, Sugar Bowl, SEC against Big XII. It doesn’t get any bigger than this. For this coaching staff to turn a 2-10 team into Sugar Bowl champions in a short period of time, it shows their work ethic and it shows ours. It shows how well we click together. It’s all glory to God and what He’s done for our program.”

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