SEC PREVIEWS: A new start in Oxford

As if winning five straight national titles wasn't enough to declare the Southeastern Conference's college football supremacy, the league managed to take it one step further last season when the BCS title game matchup between Alabama and LSU guaranteed a sixth straight national champion from the SEC before the championship game was even played.

So how does seven in a row sound? Well it will be hard to bet against the SEC continuing its dominance, especially with LSU returning 15 starters from last year's squad and BCS champ Alabama still loaded on the offensive side even with the loss of standout running back Trent Richardson.

Yet the big story in SEC Football 2012 is the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M to the conference, something that figures to make it even tougher to get through the league schedule unscathed. While neither Mizzou nor the Aggies are expected to contend for SEC divisional titles, they both bring solid programs to the league. Missouri was ranked No. 1 in the country five years ago before losing to Oklahoma in the 2007 Big 12 title game, and A&M's Kyle Field is one of the most difficult venues in the country for visiting teams, something Florida, Arkansas and LSU will have to contend with this fall.

The Scout.com publishers believe that LSU and Georgia will repeat as division champions this year with LSU picked to win the SEC Championship. Previews of all 14 SEC teams are about to be featured on GamecockAnthem.com and we start with Kentucky, the predicted last team in the SEC East.



SEC WEST

MISSISSIPPI (PREDICTED FINISH: 7TH IN WEST)


After a 2-10 record got Houston Nutt canned at the end of his fourth season at Ole Miss, the key word surrounding the Rebel football program is "new."

A new coach – Hugh Freeze, who led Arkansas State to a 10-win season in 2011 – is at the helm and he has brought with him a new fast-paced, spread-type offense, a new attack-style defense – led by veteran defensive coordinator Dave Wommack , and a new staff.

What Freeze is trying to instill the most, however, in the players, support personnel and fans is a new attitude. The Rebel fan base had become so splintered, a contingent of fans started purchasing ad space in the state's most prominent newspapers for the ouster of athletic director Pete Boone. Between Boone's eventual resignation and Nutt's firing, the Rebel fan base became fractured, to say the least. The team was already in that shape – undisciplined and in an academic maelstrom.

Hugh and new athletic director Ross Bjork have set out on a journey to unite Rebel fans and Freeze is doing an around-the-clock resuscitation project with the team. A 16-city, five-day tour called the Rebel Road Trip 2012 helped with bringing the fans back and spring training gave the team a solid dose of what Freeze's program is all about.

In 15 practices in late March to mid-April, a lot was accomplished, but also a lot was left unresolved. In a normal spring, players already know coaches, coaches already know players, players already know the systems and the practice routine is second-nature. In Ole Miss' case, none of that true, so the main things addressed were the basic concepts of the systems to be used, the practice approach, accountability in their actions and trying to get some semblance of a "swagger" back. Freeze feels those objectives were met, but he understands the predicament Ole Miss football is in and what must be done to remedy it.

"I liked the way the guys attacked spring training," he said. "We are really thin in some areas, that's a given, but that doesn't mean we can't play hard or we can't play with confidence. We've got a long way to go in this program, but if our players will attack the summer the way they did spring training, we will find a way to be competitive. Some of our issues, we simply have to recruit our way out of, but some of them can be overcome with the players we have. That's our job as coaches."

On offense, the top goals were to find the best five on the offensive line, try to clear up the picture some at quarterback and give the players a feel for the fast-paced offense Freeze will run. At quarterback, a field of five has been narrowed to two, for all intents and purposes, with juniors Barry Brunetti and Bo Wallace, the junior college Player-of-the-Year in 2011, running neck-and-neck for the job in the fall. Brunetti is considered a better runner than Wallace, but Wallace has the edge in passing.

Wideouts Donte Moncrief and Ja-Mes Logan, quarterback/wide receiver Randall Mackey and tailback Jeff Scott were the most productive skill players on offense in the spring. The Rebels need the offensive line to solidify and keep coming and more skill players to step up. Those are August projects, as well as continuing to learn the intricacies of the offense and the fast pace it demands. If you are confused by "pace," think Oregon's offense. That is the tempo Freeze wants.

On defense, there are depth issues as well. There is also quite a bit more to learn and before the season rolls around. Wommack seemed pleased with his inside people on the front, some of the linebacker play and most of the secondary, but realizes he needs to get more out of his defensive end slots while filling in the blanks at linebacker and on the back end of the defense.

A few guys who did show up on defense were safety Charles Sawyer, cornerback Wesley Pendleton, middle linebacker Mike Marry, defensive tackle Uriah Grant (before a shoulder injury ended his spring prematurely), defensive tackle Bryon Bennett, linebacker Joel Kight and newcomer cornerback Dehendret Collins.

The bottom line with the 2012 Rebels is that all the "new" demands a total united front from coaches, players, administrators, support personnel and fans, and even that may not be enough next year. But it would be a vast improvement.

Rebel fans can expect to see an exciting brand of football, a team that plays hard, good organization and discipline. How that will translate in the win column is anyone's guess, but it will be a solid start to getting the program going back in the right direction.

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