So much of what we think of as the SEC stems from Ole Miss. The brown liquor. The dramatically detailed tailgate traditions (and the gussied-up girls at the tailgate). The bouts of spectacular defensive football.
(The presence of William Faulkner is just a bonus. A confusing, stream-of-consciousness bonus.)
Yes, I said spectacular defensive football. In the late-1950s, Ole Miss was the standard-bearer for the segregated and oft-preeminent Southeastern Conference, attaining a level of greatness, especially on defense, that the likes of Bear Bryant could match and only barely exceed (though Bryant sustained that level for a much longer period of time). From 1957 to 1963, a span of seven seasons, Ole Miss allowed an average of 4.9 points per game. That is the stuff of Nick Saban's utopian nightscape, a point total that, even in that era, was unfathomably low. Accordingly, Ole Miss went an incredible 64-7-4 in this span, finishing in the Top Five for four straight seasons and racking up a win percentage of 0.880.
But that was the spectacular Ole Miss of a couple generations ago. The Ole Miss of the present tense has been battling a spectacular case of bipolarity, capable of finding greatness, but only in fleeting fashion. The 8-3-1 season of 1986 became 3-8 in 1987. Two 9-3 seasons in 1990 and 1992 were each followed with 5-6 campaigns. Eli Manning led the Rebels to 10 wins in 2003, then Ole Miss won 14 games combined in the next four years.
Houston Nutt's four-year tenure took Ole Miss' current trend and magnified it to Nutt-esque extremes. He inherited a nine-loss team and immediately engineered two straight nine-win seasons. (I'm telling you, I know exactly who Arkansas should sign to a two-year contract after John L. Smith's season is done.) But despite solid recruiting and a seemingly solid level of momentum, the Rebels fell to 4-8 in 2010 and a horrid 2-10 in 2011. Their F/+ ranking over the last five seasons has gone from 81st, to 11th, to 24th, to 61st, to 95th.
So now Hugh Freeze steps in. He has one of the most fascinating (and short) resumes of any FBS head coach, which is good, considering how fascinating the Rebels' last coach was, for better and for worse. When Nutt was named head coach at Arkansas in the late-1990s, Freeze was the 28-year-old head coach of Briarcrest (TN) High School. When Nutt took over at Ole Miss, Freeze left Ole Miss (he was recruiting coordinator, which got him into The Blind Side) for a head coaching position at NAIA's Lambuth University (now no longer a thing). When Nutt was going 9-4 in 2009, Lambuth was going 12-1 and scoring 68.3 points per game (approximate). And then Freeze pulled a Dana Holgorsen, showing up as Arkansas State's offensive coordinator just in time to become head coach instead. (Okay, he actually spent a year as O.C. before getting promoted, so it is more like a half-Holgorsen.) And in his first year as head coach, he turned a 4-8 squad into a 10-3 conference champion.
Freeze's resume is nearly flawless -- 30-8 career record as a head coach (at two programs that combined for a 7-16 record in the years before he took over), strong offensive resume, delightful grasp of the hybrid positions that are currently en vogue -- but it also still fits on just one page. And in hiring him, Ole Miss somehow managed to be both conservative (he certainly came cheaper than other candidates) and ambitious. But contradiction has been the name of the game in Oxford for most of the last half-century. Why stop now?
[Y]ou have to give Nutt credit for one thing: he makes things interesting. He is the Dairy Queen of college football coaches. He doesn't just oversign ... he's the face of oversigning. He doesn't just make crazy faces ... he's the face of crazy faces. He doesn't just suffer upset losses ... he allows 49 points at home to Jacksonville State. He didn't just field a mediocre team in 2010 ... after a terrible start, he fielded the most perfectly mediocre team ever.
And if Nutt wants to be the face of Ole Miss football twelve months from now, he should probably put together a nice bounce-back season. […]
Hope is not lost in Oxford, but the Rebels are certainly scrambling. If some newcomers -- [quarterback] Randall Mackey, [defensive end] C.J. Johnson, one of the JUCO DBs, one of the receivers, one of the young defensive tackles -- live up to potential, then this team could surprise. They do return quite a bit of experience (even if it's not all good experience), their YPP margin suggests they were at least a bit unlucky, and their recruiting averages are strong. Clearly there might be some talent here. (Lord knows, if you're going to be the face of oversigning, you should at least put a quality product on the field.)
No matter what, we'll know what we are looking at by October 1. With tough-but-winnable home games against BYU and Georgia and equally-tough-but-winnable road games against Vanderbilt and Fresno State, Ole Miss could start anywhere between 1-4 and 5-0 (and yes, I'm counting Southern Illinois as a win despite Jacksonville State). Nutt has the reputation for thriving with lower expectations, and ... well, the expectations are quite low. He has 'em right where he wants 'em!
We didn't know for sure what we were dealing with in Ole Miss after five games -- the Rebels were 2-3 with decent-looking wins over Southern Illinois and Fresno State, a razor-thin loss to BYU and losses to Georgia and a better-than-expected Vanderbilt team -- but we knew it probably wasn't very good. After the uncertain start, Nutt's final squad seemingly bottomed out (Alabama 52, Ole Miss 7), rebounded (Arkansas 29, Ole Miss 24), then really bottomed out. After a humiliating, 30-13 road loss to Kentucky, Ole Miss would score just 13 points in its final three games (an average of 4.3 points per game, or about what the Ole Miss defense used to allow), including blowout losses to both Louisiana Tech and Egg Bowl rival Mississippi State.
According to F/+ rankings, the only BCS conference teams worse than No. 95 Ole Miss were No. 96 Maryland (also 2-10), No. 99 Minnesota (3-9), No. 100 Washington State (4-8), No. 108 Colorado (3-10), No. 112 Indiana (1-11) and No. 113 Kansas (2-10). That there were six major-conference teams worse than Ole Miss shows that things could have been worse, but none of those teams were 9-4 two seasons before, and none were signing mostly top-30 recruiting classes. The fall was drastic; is there any hope that Hugh Freeze can inherit what was once seen as decent raw talent and put a third instant turnaround on his resume?
(Probably not. But hey, you never know, so keep reading.)
Ignore for a moment how bad Ole Miss' offense looked down the stretch last season. Ignore that the Rebels ranked 111th in Off. F/+. Ignore the inefficient passing, ignore the horrid line play (and the fact that the line is drastically less experienced this year), the lack of depth in the receiving corps (and the fact that perhaps the most intriguing skill position player recently transferred because of academics), and the fact that the quarterback battle is between a newcomer (one who had an interesting spring) and a player who averaged 3.0 yards per pass attempt last year. Hit the delete button. Now focus simply on the fact that Hugh Freeze has a lovely offensive background, and, in a vacuum, take a look at the weapons he inherits.
- Running back Jeff Scott. Behind one of the worst BCS lines in the country, Scott struggled in 2011, averaging a mediocre 4.6 yards per carry. But in 2010 he gained 6.5 yards per carry as a change-of-pace back and briefly emerged as an incredible kick returns weapon, which suggests, if nothing else, solid vision and speed.
- Receiver Donte Moncrief. Thrust into the role of No. 1 receiver as a freshman, Moncrief averaged 14.6 yards per catch (albeit with just a 49 percent catch rate). He was a four-star recruit and has good size (6'2, 214), and he could develop into a true, SEC-level No. 1 at some near point in the future. Meanwhile, it isn't too late for players like four-star sophomore Vince Sanders (110 yards, 8.5 per target, 77 percent catch rate) and juniors Ja-Mes Logan (274 yards, 6.7 per target, 49 percent catch rate) and Philander Moore to raise their respective games a bit.
- A quarterback who threw for 4,600 yards and 53 touchdowns in junior college last year. Ole Miss has gone to the "Junior College All-American" well multiple times recently, and it hasn't really ever worked out, but technically speaking, players like Brent Schaefer and Randall Mackey have nothing to do with new transfer Bo Wallace (originally an Arkansas State signee), and previous failures say nothing about the future. On paper, the 6'5 Wallace has quite a bit to offer, and while junior Barry Brunetti, also a competitor in the quarterbacks race, is more mobile, Wallace might be able to do a decent Ryan Aplin impression. (Aplin is the Arkansas State quarterback who averaged over 10 carries per game, mostly from the zone read.)
- Two interesting tight ends. Despite inefficient quarterback play, Jamal Mosley and Ferbia Allen, both now seniors, combined to catch 18 of 26 passes last year for 235 yards. That isn't bad. Tight ends didn't play any sort of major role in Freeze's Arkansas State offense last year, but there might not be a choice this year.
- A player perfectly bred to lead a Wildcat formation. Randall Mackey is last year's great junior college hope who struggled (to put it kindly) behind center -- 49.7 percent completion rate, 11.9 percent sack rate, 5.4 yards per pass attempt -- but he showed solid mobility in averaging 5.4 yards per non-sack carry. He moved to wideout this spring, but evidently he was also lining up all over the field and spent some time with a Wildcat set.
- Interesting newcomers. Four-star running back I'Tavius Mathers and three-star scatback-in-the-making Jaylen Walton join the stable, and there are certainly carries to be won if they have a good August. (So far, so good.)
- A big line. We'll see how good it is, but while four of the six most experienced linemen are out the door, leaving five players with starting experience (45 career starts), the size of this year's line is unquestionable. The 10 players on the post-spring depth chart average 6'4, 315 pounds. Plus, it appears that four-star sophomore Aaron Morris (6'5, 325) had a lovely spring, so that's a bonus.
Ignoring last year's performance and any semblance of context, it certainly seems like Freeze and offensive co-coordinators Dan Werner and Matt Luke can make something of this group. In reality, the line is probably still going to struggle, and the quarterback situation could very well remain unsettled. But we don't have to deal with reality until Sept. 1.
When Ole Miss was winning 18 games in 2008-09, quarterback Jevan Snead was the face of the program. But the defense did the heavy lifting, ranking 24th in Def. F/+ in 2008 and 17th in 2009. (The Rebels have also been consistently solid in the special teams department: 22nd in Special Teams F/+ in 2008, 33rd in 2009, and even 13th last year.) Like the offense, the defense regressed rather considerably in the last couple of years, but it was at least still something resembling an average unit, one that defended the pass reasonably well and stiffened in the red zone.
Strangely, though, the defense that produced linemen like Jerrell Powe, Greg Hardy and Peria Jerry in recent years was very much a weakness in 2011. Ole Miss ranked 85th in Adj. Line Yards and 106th in Adj. Sack Rate; they could get pushed around versus the run, and they weren't capable enough at rushing the passer to make up for it. Not a good combination. So it's a bit of a good-news-bad-news situation up front: three of last year's top four tacklers, and two of the four players to log more than 2.5 tackels for loss, are gone. New blood might not be a bad thing here, but defensive coordinator Dave Wommack will be filling in a two-deep with last year's backups (who were, in theory, not as good as the starters that were getting pushed around), freshmen and redshirt freshmen. Sophomore end C.J. Johnson, a former five-star recruit, is super-light (6'1, 231) and, in theory, susceptible to run blocking. He recorded 4.0 tackles for loss, which isn't bad for a freshman, and he will be expected to make a load of plays this year. Meanwhile, senior end Gerald Rivers was the definition of "all or nothing" (4.5 of his 10.5 tackles were behind the line of scrimmage) and Jason Jones (6.5 combined tackles for loss in 2010-11) is showing strong leadership but hasn't produced much in his career. Sophomore tackles (and former star recruits) Carlton Martin and Byron Bennett join seniors Uriah Grant and Gilbert Pena in the middle, while an incoming star recruit, end Channing Ward, had enough size (6'4, 250) to potentially contribute early. If the line could at least improve to average, the speedy back seven would benefit considerably.
That Ole Miss ranked 68th in Passing S&P+ despite a non-existent pass rush says decent things about the Rebels' secondary. Three of the top eight tacklers in the secondary are gone, but there is potentially still enough depth to capitalize on Wommack's use of a 4-2-5 defense. Arkansas State's defense improved dramatically under Wommack last year, from 76th in Def. F/+ to 31st, and Ole Miss might have the requisite depth of defensive backs to improve here, too. Wommack certainly has options at safety, where junior Charles Sawyer (3.0 tackles for loss, four interceptions, nine passes broken up) is a strong play-maker, and four-star sophomore Cody Prewitt got a lot of playing time last year. The corner position is a bit unproven, but senior Wesley Pendleton did break up four passes in minimal opportunities last year; you can potentially work with that.
As linked above, Smart Football's Chris Brown spoke a lot about hybrid defenders recently, and he touched on one of the key pieces of Wommack's 4-2-5: the safety/outside linebacker position Wommack calls the "HUSKIE."
Instead of taking high school safeties and making them linebackers, coaches are taking athletes who can hit and play pass coverage, and simply letting them make plays. That means everything from blitzing the quarterback or stuffing a running back in the backfield to running step-for-step with a tight end or slot receiver. NFL coaches have begun referring to this as their "big nickel" package, which is a bit misleading because "nickel" is a term invented to describe some smaller part of a team's overall defensive game plan. The reality is that just as NFL offenses rarely line up with two true running backs, NFL defenses rarely line up with three true linebackers. Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu were the two best safeties of the last decade or so, but their successors — in body type, athleticism, and playmaking ability — may not play safety at all. Regardless of the position at which he's listed, he'll likely be a linebacker in a safety's body.
The fifth safety/third linebacker in the 4-2-5 will be manned by two players who combined to make just 2.0 tackles last year. Junior Brishen Mathews (who missed most of last season with injury) and senior Ivan Nicholas (whose Ole Miss bio says he "has shown that he can help when he is in good shape," which is a bit of a red flag, huh?) will need to be completely up to speed when the season starts if they are to take advantage of the "multiple" aspect of Wommack's defense.
Considering the size involved here, you could almost make the case that the 4-2-5 is really more of a 4-1-6, at least if Aaron Garbutt (6'2, 200) or Denzel Nkemdiche (5'10, 197) wins the starting job at strongside ("STINGER") linebacker. Both are seen as fast, hard hitters, but both are also smaller than a good percentage of SEC safeties. You can win in sacrificing size for speed, but you have to be really fast and really disciplined. At least there's size in the middle, where 248-pound Mike Marry (5.0 tackles for loss), an old-school linebacker in every way, holds the fort.
When you have won a combined six games in two years, and your schedule includes nine teams projected in the Top 50 (seven in the Top 25), you probably aren't going to be in major contention for a bowl game this year.
But if Ole Miss can simply improve to the point where they beat the scrubs on the schedule (Central Arkansas, UTEP, at Tulane) and hold the fort at home -- we'll define that as going at least 2-2 versus Texas A&M, Auburn, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State in Oxford -- then they will have both shown improvement and given at least a decent run at six wins. That should be considered a success, even though it's not impossible to see the Rebels winning three of those four "hold the fort" games and reaching six wins with decent improvement.
The hire of Hugh Freeze did not knock the socks off many in Oxford, but I loved it. Freeze's short resume is full of quick turnarounds and high quality, and if Ole Miss has proven anything in the last few years, it's that a) the Rebels can turn their fortunes around (in both directions) in a hurry, and b) wow, are the Rebels in need of such a turn around.
Last year's team was fast but lost, full of former high-caliber recruits playing football poorly. In theory, this is a perfect situation for a new coach -- downtrodden team that seems to have a lot of underlying athleticism and, perhaps, talent, and is in need of a new guiding hand -- but "SEC West" and "perfect situation" don't mix. It will take a pretty stark turnaround for Freeze to get Ole Miss to even six wins next year, but that's alright. Long-term, this could be a fantastic hire for the Rebels, and when you go 2-10 one season, you probably shouldn't expect immediate success, even if your new coach's name is Nick Saban.
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