2014 CFN Preview: Why Not Ole Miss?

There's talent, experience, and stars. Can the Rebels win the SEC?

Head coach: Hugh Freeze
3rd year:15-11
7th year overall: 45-18
Returning Lettermen:
Off. 27, Def. 31, ST 2
Lettermen Lost: 27
Ten Best Ole Miss Players
1. DT Robert Nkemdiche, Soph.
2. OT Laremy Tunsil, Soph.
3. WR Laquon Treadwell, Soph.
4. S Cody Prewitt, Sr.
5. LB Denzel Nkemdiche, Jr.
6. LB Serderius Briant, Sr.
7. S Tony Conner, Soph.
8. QB Bo Wallace, Sr.
9. DE C.J. Johnson, Sr.
10. TE Evan Engram, Soph.
*if healthy
2014 Schedule

Aug. 28 Boise St (in ATL)
Sep. 6 at Vanderbilt
Sep. 13 UL Lafayette
Sep. 27 Memphis
Oct. 4 Alabama
Oct. 11 at Texas A&M
Oct. 18 Tennessee
Oct. 25 at LSU
Nov. 1 Auburn
Nov. 8 Presbyterian
Nov. 22 at Arkansas
Nov. 29 Miss State

Every team likes to use the motivational “why not us?” phrase, but really, why not Ole Miss?

One problem - it's still in the SEC West.

Hugh Freeze has done a magnificent job of upgrading the talent level and putting the program in a position to potentially challenge for really, really big things, but he's about to run into the problem that all recent Rebel coaches have faced.

Alabama, Auburn, Arkansas, LSU, Texas A&M, and as the end of last year showed, Mississippi State.

But that's the deal, and Ole Miss has to try to fight through it to be a success. The pieces are in place to be far better with star power, NFL skill, and just enough depth to get by, but is it enough get past the really big boys? It would be great to beat an Alabama or upset an LSU, but to get through and become a major player, Ole Miss has to beat almost everyone in the toughest division in college football.

Ask Texas A&M – who has won almost nothing of significance - over the last two years what it means just to be really, really good in the SEC West.

But that’s looking at Ole Miss as a potential SEC and national title contender, and while that’s obviously the ultimate dream, just starting to make some more consistent inroads with the big boys in the West would be a fantastic step forward.

2003 was the last time the Rebels beat Alabama. There has been some success against LSU, and winning last year was great, but Ole Miss has only won three times since 2001. The Rebels are 2-6 against Auburn since 2003 and lost both games against Texas A&M as SEC brothers.

Can Ole Miss be the type of program that can maintain consistent success in the SEC? It’ll never be Alabama or Florida in terms of sheer might, but it can be come become a yearly threat that might get its turn on the wheel in a year when everything breaks right.

If Missouri could rise up and take the SEC East, and if Auburn can go from 2012 disaster to 2013 national title-good in one season, Ole Miss can catch fire in one dream season, and it can become more of a steady player.

This year’s team might not be there quite yet, but considering Arkansas is still figuring out what it’s going to be, Mississippi State is good, not elite, and Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M are going through huge quarterback changes, maybe this could be the season that Freeze catches everyone flat-footed.

So, really, why not Ole Miss?

The offense that was so strong and so good at times throughout last year – at least until the end of the regular season – might lose some key pieces in receiver Donte Moncrief and Ja-Mes Logan, but Laquon Treadwell looks like something special.

Three starters are gone on the offensive front, but Laremy Tunsil will be playing on Sundays in the near future and guard Aaron Morris is back after suffering a torn ACL early last year. There’s more than enough talent at running back to replace Jeff Scott, and Bo Wallace comes into the season as one of the SEC’s most experienced quarterbacks.

The defense should be a killer with nine starters back including the brothers Nkemdiche – Robert at tackle and Denzel at linebacker. Add Serderius Bryant to the mix, and the Rebels – after a few suspension issues and the move of D.T. Shackelford to the middle – are loaded at linebacker and potentially even deadlier in the secondary with a deep group of corners good enough to make the loss of Charles Sawyer no big deal.

The expectations are rightfully high to rise up and be a ten-win team and be in the hunt for the West all season long, but now the program has to deal with the expectations that go along with all the positives. At the very least, though, compared to just a few years ago, Ole Miss is in the discussion. 

What to watch for on offense: Can the offensive line get the job done? Laremy Tunsil can’t do it all himself. It was okay last year overall but struggled a bit in pass protection, and now it has to replace steady leader Evan Swindall at center while relying on injured players – guard Aaron Morris (ACL) and tackle Christian Morris (Achilles heel) – to come back healthy and be major factors. There are questions at No. 2 quarterback, and the overall consistency has to be better after sputtering in key moments – the Rebels’ were 1-5 when gaining fewer than 475 yards with the one aberration coming against Texas. The D will be better so there probably won’t be too many shootouts, but the O has be balanced and steady.

What to watch for on defense: The line has to come up with a better pass rush, and it should with end C.J. Johnson returning from an injured ankle that knocked him out early last year. The defense was good for a few sacks a game, but there wasn’t the consistent pressure needed into the backfield to be disruptive on a regular basis. The defense figured it out against Georgia Tech in the bowl win and was camped out behind the line, but there wasn’t enough disruption in the tough loss to Auburn and Johnny Manziel and AJ McCarron weren’t touched enough in losses to Texas A&M and Alabama, respectively. The back seven should be outstanding, allowing the line to take a few more chances, but the pressure has to come from all four spots all the time.

The team will be far better if … the special teams rock. Hello, Will Gleeson. The Rebels signed on a fantastic dual-threat kicker from Australia, and he might need to be the answer to fill two key jobs. Ole Miss had way too many empty red zone trips, and that has to change with more consistent placekicking. Andrew Ritter wasn’t bad hitting 16-of-24 field goals, but he missed five of his last eight kicks – to be fair, one was a 61-yard try against Mizzou. He has to be replaced, and while there might be a few decent options in Andrew Fletcher and Andy Poppanastos battling for the job if Gleeson isn’t ready, can they bomb away like Ritter did? Punter Tyler Campbell was excellent averaging 44.4 yards per punt, but he put ten in the end zone. Gleeson might be the answer here, too. The return game could use a boost, too.

The schedule: Compared to last year’s brutally unfair slate, this is a piece of cake. Granted, Boise State and Louisiana-Lafayette aren’t your normal mid-major types – they could win their respective conferences – but those are winnable early games, and any team that thinks for a split second about hanging with the Alabamas and LSUs needs to whack Vanderbilt on the road. If the Rebels get through those three early games, with a week off to prepare for Memphis, they’ll be 4-0 before hosting Alabama. Going to Texas A&M and LSU are the road killers, but if the Rebels can come up with a split, it might be Game On with Auburn and Mississippi State at home. Getting Presbyterian and a week off makes it a nice November to prepare for the road trip to Arkansas and the Egg Bowl.

Best offensive player: Sophomore OT Laremy Tunsil. He might not be the flashiest player on a potentially high-powered attack, but he’s the most important key to the attack as the one big star on a rebuilding line. WR Laquon Treadwell is about to become special, and QB Bo Wallace is going to start to get more credit and national attention, but Tunsil is the one with the highest ceiling with the ability to grow into a franchise blocker. All the pieces are there, and while his money at the next level might be made as a right tackle or a guard, he’ll be a ten-year pro once he finishes up two more years in Oxford.

Best defensive player: Senior S Cody Prewitt. Okay, so pick a Nkemdiche, any Nkemdiche, and he might be the team’s best player, and LB Serderius Bryant is a sure-thing all-star, but Prewitt might have the best season of any Rebel defender, just like he did last year making 71 tackles with six picks. He’s a playmaker and producer with great size, excellent range, and the ability to get all over the field and get in on everything. No, he’s not the team’s most talented defender, but he’s going to be the most productive.

Key player to a successful season: Senior QB Bo Wallace. He took a backseat in the SEC West quarterback publicity department with Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron and Zach Mettenberger getting all the love. Those three are gone, and while Auburn’s Nick Marshall might be the division’s signature star, it’s Wallace who has as much pressure on his shoulders - almost literally, as he's finally getting past a shoulder problem - as anyone in the league. Now he has to be the reason the team is great, and if he struggles, or if he reverts back to his 2012 form and starts giving the ball away to the other side on a regular basis, a great season could be just so-so.

The season will be a success if … the Rebels win ten games. There’s no reason not to with Alabama and Auburn coming to Oxford and the road slate relatively manageable – there are just four true away games. The team is too good to not go 4-0 in non-conference play against Boise State, Louisiana-Lafayette, Memphis and Presbyterian, and it needs to take care of Tennessee and Mississippi State at home – that’s six wins. Beat Vanderbilt and Arkansas on the road – that’s eight – and come up with two wins against Alabama, at Texas A&M, at LSU and Auburn.

Key game: Nov. 1 at Auburn. Can the Rebels beat Alabama at home? If so, they’ll be 5-0 going into the road date at Texas A&M and with a winnable game against Tennessee to follow. More likely, Ole Miss struggles in at least two of the three games against Bama, Texas A&M and LSU, but the Auburn game is at home with a shot to go on a terrific November run. Beat the Tigers, and with Presbyterian, a week off, a trip to Arkansas and Mississippi State to finish up, there should be a nice run.

2013 Fun Stats:
- 1st Quarter Scoring: Ole Miss 108 - Opponents 61
- Passing TDs: Ole Miss 24 - Opponents 10
- Field Goals: Ole Miss 16-of-24 - Opponents 14-of-19

- 2014 Ole Miss Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players

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