Every successful team has something they can hang their hats on, sometimes tangible, sometimes intangible.
Commonly referred to as the "it" factor.
When you first meet someone, when you see a pretty lady walking down the street, when you see a special automobile or a beautiful home or when you go to a well-done movie, beauty in nature, etc., it’s easy to see when something has the "it." There’s just something beyond the ordinary that jumps out at you.
The same holds true for sports teams.
"It" is as noticeable as Paul Finebaum's ears. Prominent, sore-thumbish.
The "it" could be, obviously, outstanding talent, which trumps just about anything else - ask Alabama or some of the other current top five programs. There are very few magic potions that beat pure ability. As a famous coach once said, it’s not Xs and Os, it’s Jimmies and Joes.
The "it" could be an inordinate amount of leadership, second only, in this opinion, to abundant talent. Great leadership can overcome a lot of things in a team sport because excellent leadership fosters so many other positive attributes. Arms-locked unity, impenetrable trust in each other, a desire to never let your teammate down and many more.
The "it" could be innovative and creative instruction that is fully absorbed by team members. Innovative and creative doesn't provide an "it" if players are scratching their heads in bewilderment, which leads to another potential "it" - intelligence. You gotta have it in today's sports world - dummies cannot play any sport on the collegiate level unless they are just so gifted athletically that one just "turns them loose" and says "play."
There are many other possibilities for an "it" factor - the will to win, finding ways to win, riding the wave of a superstar, playing with refusing-to-lose gumption, all players on the same page mentality and communicating well, flawless execution of assignments and alignments, having a swagger and confidence that defies logic at times, and even embracing the underdog role, to name a few. And let's not forget pure luck - staying healthy, getting a bounce or two, etc.
To me, Hugh Freeze's four previous teams had an "it."
In 2012, "it" was embracing the underdog role and proving to the world that they belonged after being embarrassed the year before he arrived in Oxford. We may not be very good yet, but we can compete and battle and play with passion, seemed to be that team’s mantra.
In 2013, "it" was belief and togetherness and confidence. We showed last year we were competitive, now we want to show we can go a step further, they appeared to relay to all.
In 2014, "it" was a warrior mentality. We may not be as good, yet, as some of you, but we are here and we intend to stay. And you will have to fight your ass off to beat us, was seemingly the battle cry.
In 2015, "it" was outstanding, vocal leadership and a will to win. We beat the best in the nation last year and we can, and will, do it again – and they did.
And each of those teams had other "it" factors. The 2014 and 2015 squads, for instance, had several players now residing in the NFL. It was no accident they won nine and then double-digit games for the first time at Ole Miss since Eli Manning was a senior and went to the Sugar Bowl for the first time since Eli's Daddy, Archie, was in charge.
Now, here we are with the 2016 team, that ended 5-7 and drowning in the never-ending NCAA investigation that has worn everyone to a frazzle, some internal issues that have reared their ugly heads in regards to injuries, suspensions, and players "spitting the bit" of discipline.
So let's dissect, a little, what has taken place. Some will call some of these points "excuses." Your prerogative. Some will simply disagree. No sweat off our backs.
The schedule was brutal and it took its toll in the long run. The fear I personally had, and I said so to friends and Spirit chat room regulars, was that the Rebels could get so beaten down, either physically or mentally or both, in the first month that the rest of the season could be a major struggle.
The Rebs' only "lock down" corner, Ken Webster, went out early in the first game against Florida State and from there, little did we know, the defensive scramble had begun. Couple that with DE Fadol Brown, a stalwart, not coming around as expected until late in the year, the linebackers playing like they'd never seen a football at times, a star QB being lost for the last three games due to injury, and a young secondary stumbling around some and it spelled trouble, trouble that some saw coming, but nothing I was astute enough to pick up on, other than potential youth issues on the back end for a few games.
For example, with a Webster, the defensive coaches could have so much more with pressure packages and trust that side of the field would be taken care of and the same held true with Fadol in the picture – there was more they could do with him than without him.
And then there were players who did not live up to expectations. While it’s against our policy to single out individual players too often, MLB DeMarquis Gates ended last year as if he was on the verge of being All-SEC. This year, he did not play to that level much, mired in injury and suspension and reverting back to his freelancing days of the previous years. (Remember, against LSU, he had 14 tackles and against MSU he was the direct cause of two Dak Presott turnovers, one that resulted in Tony Bridges’ pick six. Those plays virtually vanished this year.)
On top of that, there seemed to be a disconnect somewhere between the defensive coaches and the defensive players, something DC Dave Wommack said, in a vague way, several times this year. Comments like “95% of our players have bought in,” didn’t give one the warm and fuzzies.
And while the offense put up solid numbers and statistically looked good, they have not fared well in crunch time or in the second half of several games. A turnover here, a missed play there, a sack here, a dropped pass there - all things that were costly in games where clean execution is tantamount to winning.
Special teams? Some parts were good, some parts were blah. Like everything else on the team, there was not a great deal of consistency there. Besides PK Gary Wunderlich making all but one field goal try all year, it was all sort of average or below, forgettable, and even Wunderlich bemoans missing two PATs, which he says “can’t happen.” Oh, but they did.
The leadership has been "thin." While players like Evan Engram, Chad Kelly, Issac Gross, Marquis Haynes and John Youngblood tried to the best of their ability to rally the troops, I'm not sure they are, with all due respect, the natural leaders of some of the guys Ole Miss have had in Freeze's first four years, like C.J. Johnson. D.T. Shackelford, Laquon Treadwell, Cody Prewitt, Mike Hilton, et al, who were all very vocal guys. While all are quality players, it's hard to see them in a vocal leadership role. They lead by example, which is good, but every once in a while, players need the proverbial kick in the seat of the pants by one of their peers.
And, let's take into account, through no fault of this year's leaders, some players seemed to refuse to be led, which we saw a little of with a breakdown in team discipline, either behaviorally or attitude-wise.
In some ways, the Rebels lived the good side of a perfect storm, for the most part, for four seasons, where a lot of things fell in place, either by design or willpower or luck or whatever the reason. This year, it seemed to be a perfect storm of Murphy’s Law of injury, outside influences (NCAA), youth, internal issues and a lack of plain old toughness, it says here. By the end of the year, as much as it pains me to say it, this team was splintered and soft and uninspired.
Previous Freeze teams developed “it” factors, a brotherhood, they played for love of each other and had belief. They had undeniable will.
This team’s “it” factor, or so it seemed, never seemed to materialize and we’re not just talking about wins and losses, but how those transpired, some emotionless.
The good news?
There doesn’t seem to be much circulating right now, after two embarrassing season-ending losses, but the news the Rebel staff will be getting some needed new blood is a start.
Here’s an understatement of all understatements – the defensive coordinator hire will be huge – or as President Elect Donald Trump says “uge” - for Hugh Freeze and his program, now going into year six.
Will he go for a 4-3 guy, a 3-4 guy, a 4-2-5 guy, a multiple guy, an up-and-comer, a grizzled veteran, a tough guy personae – it’s all unknown at this writing, but we’ve been told in no uncertain terms that Athletics Director Ross Bjork is not going to let money, within reason, stand in the way of Freeze getting his man. Certainly, that’s good news.
But mark it down - you cannot win in the SEC without an "it" of some sort. Whoever Freeze chooses, one thing is certain, he will have to be a positive part of this program getting the “it” factor back.
Because Hugh’s journey took a detour and “it” was missing in 2016.