Shea Patterson/USA Today Images

Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze is heading into the most important offseason of his Ole Miss tenure

And so ushers in the offseason of change.

Ole Miss lost to Mississippi State Saturday afternoon. The game followed all the familiar beats of a Rebel loss: Ole Miss was gutted and gashed defensively — proving, again, the Rebels couldn’t catch water if they fell out of a boat — and they stalled in the red zone, struggled with short-yardage conversions and couldn’t muster much of anything in the second half on offense. It was a game you, the fan, have seen time and again in the 2016 season; a season that, mercifully, came to an end with a 55-20 loss to the in-state rival, the largest margin for victory for Mississippi State in Oxford in Egg Bowl history.

Ole Miss didn’t just lose to Mississippi State. The Rebels were embarrassed. Nick Fitzgerald is still running. Recruits and their families sat in disbelief in the team meeting room afterwards. The program has seen worse days, to be sure. Houston Nutt’s final season of 2-10 and a winless SEC record remains rock bottom. But the mood around Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, amongst the fanbase, right now is eerily similar. Nutt’s 2011 team wasn’t supposed to be good, so when they lost, there was a sense of expectation. Ole Miss entered September with playoff aspirations. The Rebels didn’t even sniff the postseason.

Hugh Freeze and John Youngblood/USA Today Images

How did Ole Miss get here? There’s blame to go around. Injuries hurt, as did a difficult early schedule. But c’mon. At this point, with Thanksgiving in the rearview and no more games to be play, those are excuses. Ole Miss’ negligence in signing SEC-caliber linebackers was never more glaring than against Mississippi State. At times this season, the starting defensive backfield consisted of a true freshman, redshirt freshman, true sophomore, true freshman and senior Tony Conner. In. Year. Five. You could nitpick offensively, but the reason Ole Miss finished 5-7 and is going home with one of the ugliest losses the program has seen in quite some time is because the defense was worse than abysmal.

Ole Miss announced prior to kickoff defensive coordinator Dave Wommack will retire, the first in what is sure to be a number of coaching staff changes to come in the next month or so. Wommack is a great guy who accomplished plenty in his time as a Rebel, including a 2014 defense that ranked among the nation’s best. However, it was time. The question now is who will follow him. I’ve heard only two coaches — quarterbacks coach Dan Werner and offensive line coach Matt Luke — are stone-cold locks to return. Derrick Nix and Grant Heard aren’t far behind. Freeze, though, could completely overhaul his defensive staff, and at this point, it can be argued he needs to.

Changes have been needed for a while. Recruiting is the life blood of college football. The Rebels, with the unrelenting NCAA cloud hanging overhead, is currently in the SEC cellar, and the staff was already lacking in elite-level recruiters anyway. Honestly, moves needed to be made years ago, but Freeze opted for continuity. A noble gesture, granted, but only when the wins are coming. Now the bill — an ugly, year-five nightmare — has come due, and it’s time to pay up.

It seemed the Rebels were on the cusp of somewhat salvaging what was then only a disappointing season when they came back to beat Texas A&M. Shea Patterson had his coming-out party, and for the first time all year, the Rebels had real momentum. Then Vanderbilt happened. Mississippi State followed. At home. In the Egg Bowl, of all games. It’s one thing to lose the Egg Bowl. It’s another entirely to get blown out at home. Even without the last three games, in reality, Ole Miss got progressively worse as the season pushed forward.

Hugh Freeze/USA Today Images

Freeze has often talked about the journey, stories, etc. Well, he heads into the most important offseason of his career, one that could very well determine how his Ole Miss journey ends. Who will he bring in? Will the NCAA be a detriment to hires? How does recruiting end up? The Rebels covet Cam Akers and have a great shot to land him, even with Saturday’s loss, but a running back doesn’t tackle. Or pass defend. Or rush the quarterback. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Ole Miss add double-dight junior college players in December and February, the vast majority on defense. Whatever’s necessary, honestly. 

In the end, the final results ultimately fall on Freeze. Freeze and Freeze alone is responsible for the well-being of the program and the on-field product. Just as he deserved praise for the previous four seasons, including back-to-back New Year’s Six bowls, he deserves criticism for 5-7. 

Only the harshest of Ole Miss critics saw such a season coming. But it happened, and it’s left to Freeze to pick up the pieces.

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