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1. "Probably not. But hey, you never know, so keep reading."
In hiring him, Ole Miss somehow managed to be both conservative (he certainly came cheaper than other candidates) and ambitious.
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.)
In reality, the line is probably still going to struggle, and the quarterback situation could very well remain unsettled.
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 tackles 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.
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.
These are all things I said in what was, I felt, a reasonably positive Ole Miss preview about ten months ago. I felt it was rather optimistic because I said it was "not impossible" to see the Rebels somehow reaching 6-6. I even talked about the potential for a quick turnaround under a coach who had already engineered a few of them.
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.
I still didn't see this. I didn't see Ole Miss not only making a bowl, but also signing a top-ten recruiting class and beginning the 2013 season justifiably in the preseason Top 25. I didn't see Freeze so quickly putting together a team that has wide swaths of potential at nearly every single position.
In 2013, Ole Miss will still be a work in progress. We should keep that in mind. We're still trying to figure out the Rebels' ceiling in an environment where the No. 7 recruiting class in the country (according to Rivals) was barely third in their own division. Ole Miss will still be ridiculously young this fall -- hell, with all of the star freshmen entering the rotation, the Rebels will actually be younger than they were last year -- and that's not typically a prompt for great success. But while we hope our school's new coach will engineer stunning progress on the field, in recruiting and in the optimism department, it doesn't actually happen.
At least, it usually doesn't. It has in Oxford.
2. Ole Miss football is not boring
Since 2006, 842 FBS teams have taken the field. Only 107 of them (13 percent) have either improved or regressed by 40 spots in the F/+ rankings in a single season. Ole Miss, meanwhile, has done so four times in five years. That's absurd. The Rebels rose from 77th to 10th in 2008, fell from 19th to 60th in 2010, fell from 60th to 100th in 2011, and rose from 100th to 40th in 2012. It's a little bit of a surprise if that happens to you once in seven years. Ole Miss yawns at "surprising."
2012 Schedule & Results
|Record: 7-6 | Adj. Record: 10-3 | Final F/+ Rk: 40|
|Date||Opponent||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L|
|1-Sep||Central Arkansas||49-27||W||38.3 - 31.2||W|
|8-Sep||UTEP||28-10||W||38.6 - 21.2||W|
|15-Sep||Texas||31-66||L||28.0 - 45.7||L|
|22-Sep||Tulane||39-0||W||28.7 - 8.6||W|
|29-Sep||at Alabama||14-33||L||30.0 - 15.1||W|
|6-Oct||Texas A&M||27-30||L||31.4 - 27.4||W|
|13-Oct||Auburn||41-20||W||33.5 - 23.6||W|
|27-Oct||at Arkansas||30-27||W||27.1 - 27.1||L|
|3-Nov||at Georgia||10-37||L||20.9 - 30.4||L|
|10-Nov||Vanderbilt||26-27||L||31.7 - 26.6||W|
|17-Nov||at LSU||35-41||L||37.0 - 31.0||W|
|24-Nov||Mississippi State||41-24||W||37.5 - 20.6||W|
|5-Jan||vs. Pittsburgh||38-17||W||30.9 - 13.7||W|
|Points Per Game||31.5||47||27.6||60|
|Adj. Points Per Game||31.8||39||24.8||36|
This was one of the sillier, funnier stories of the 2012 season. Three weeks into the season, fresh off of an outright whipping at the hands of Texas (one in which a yelling Marine was the only person who could stop Marquise Goodwin), it was difficult to imagine everything that was to follow for Ole Miss. The Rebels were just a team that was trying to rebuild for about the 12th time in 25 years and facing a brutal schedule that would include visits to Alabama, Georgia and LSU. But somewhere between the Texas and Tulane games, Ole Miss figured out how to play a little defense. And it rather dramatically changed the course of the season. The Rebels were able to absorb a shoulder injury to quarterback Bo Wallace (and the miniature offensive slump that followed), reach a bowl game, and, of course, sign three five-star recruits and a strangely impressive recruiting class.
Adj. Points Per Game (first 3 games): Ole Miss 35.0, Opponent 32.7 (plus-2.3)
Adj. Points Per Game (last 10 games): Ole Miss 30.9, Opponent 22.4 (plus-8.5)
|Q1 Rk||13||1st Down Rk||26|
|Q2 Rk||26||2nd Down Rk||44|
|Q3 Rk||58||3rd Down Rk||15|
4. What a turnaround
You don't rise 60 spots in the F/+ rankings without improvement on both sides of the ball, but while Ole Miss' defensive improvement was impressive (from 78th in Def. F/+ to 34th), the turnaround on offense was stunning. At least, it would have been stunning for teams that aren't used to such surges. The Rebels fell to a dreadful 110th in Off. F/+ in 2011 with a decent running game and, despite two solid receivers, a horror show for a passing game. But Freeze and co-coordinators Matt Luke and Dan Werner were able to engineer immediate, across-the-board improvement from 110th to 34th. Junior-college transfer Bo Wallace stepped in at quarterback, and while he had some decision-making issues at times (we'll get to that), he led a passing game that improved from 78th in Passing PPP+ (explosiveness) to 14th despite the loss of No. 2 receiver Nick Brassell to academic issues. Donte Moncrief was an outstanding No. 1 receiver as a sophomore, Ja-Mes Logan improved his catch rate from 49 percent to 74 percent and became a steady possession receiver, and former star recruit Vince Sanders became a dependable No. 3.
Combine explosive passing with efficient running, and you have yourself an offense. Jeff Scott is in no way an explosive back, but despite his diminutive size, he was able to grind out key yardage on standard downs (despite what was only a decent line) and set Wallace up with favorable second and third downs.
Note: players in bold below are 2013 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Bo Wallace||6'4, 204||Jr.||*** (5.6)||235||368||2,994||63.9%||22||17||28||7.1%||7.1|
|Barry Brunetti||6'0, 212||Sr.||NR||23||36||196||63.9%||1||0||3||7.7%||4.6|
|Maikhail Miller||6'2, 240||So.||*** (5.6)|
|Ryan Buchanan||6'3, 210||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
5. Live by the Wallace, die by the Wallace
Are you not entertained? Bo Wallace, the junior-college (via Arkansas State) transfer with the floppy bangs and total fearlessness, played through injuries, tucked the ball and ran at good defenses and managed to complete 64 percent of his passes and throw for 22 touchdowns. He also took far too many sacks and threw an interception for almost every touchdown. A little bit of fear can be a good thing at times. If Wallace can learn to throw the ball away under pressure and take what the defense gives him a bit more, Ole Miss could see even more improvement in 2013. But I'm not sure that's in his DNA. But hey, at least he's learning that he shouldn't take as many hits. That's something.
|Jeff Scott||RB||5'7, 170||Sr.||*** (5.5)||197||850||4.3||3.7||6||-6.1|
|Bo Wallace||QB||6'4, 204||Jr.||*** (5.6)||115||571||5.0||4.8||8||+4.2|
|Barry Brunetti||QB||6'0, 212||Sr.||NR||57||292||5.1||3.4||3||+1.2|
|I'Tavius Mathers||RB||5'11, 196||So.||**** (5.8)||27||208||7.7||7.2||1||+6.1|
|Jaylen Walton||RB||5'8, 167||So.||*** (5.7)||23||118||5.1||3.5||1||+1.3|
|Maikhail Miller||QB||6'2, 240||So.||*** (5.6)||6||23||3.8||1.6||0||-1.1|
|Mark Dodson||RB||5'10, 193||Fr.||**** (5.9)|
|Kailo Moore||RB||5'10, 180||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Jordan Wilkins||RB||6'1, 210||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Donte Moncrief||WR-X||6'3, 216||Jr.||**** (5.8)||102||66||979||64.7%||9.6||27.4%||67.6%||10.0||161.6|
|Ja-Mes Logan||WR-H||6'3, 195||Sr.||*** (5.5)||58||43||493||74.1%||8.5||15.6%||60.3%||8.5||81.4|
|Vince Sanders||WR-Z||6'1, 190||Jr.||**** (5.9)||55||39||504||70.9%||9.2||14.8%||65.5%||9.2||83.2|
|Korvic Neat||WR-H||5'9, 164||Sr.||*** (5.7)||35||24||257||68.6%||7.3||9.4%||48.6%||7.4||42.4|
|Jeff Scott||RB||5'7, 170||Sr.||*** (5.5)||31||22||172||71.0%||5.5||8.3%||35.5%||5.2||28.4|
|Jaylen Walton||RB||5'8, 167||So.||*** (5.7)||5||3||57||60.0%||11.4||1.3%||40.0%||17.1||9.4|
|Collins Moore||WR||6'1, 196||Jr.||*** (5.7)||5||4||53||80.0%||10.6||1.3%||40.0%||11.8||8.7|
|Cody Core||WR-X||6'3, 191||So.||** (5.4)|
|Jordan Holder||WR-Z||5'11, 177||Sr.||NR|
|Quadarias Mireles||WR-H||5'11, 185||Jr.||*** (5.6)|
|Laquon Treadwell||WR||6'3, 198||Fr.||***** (6.1)|
|Quincy Adeboyejo||WR||6'3, 175||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
6. Toys in the toy box
With Moncrief, Logan and Sanders, Ole Miss would have been returning a pretty solid trio of experienced, quality receivers even if they hadn't gone out and signed five-star freshman Laquon Treadwell this February. Now, Treadwell comes into a situation in which he doesn't face pressure to immediately become a No. 1-caliber receiver. But hey, if he were to turn out to be a Marqise Lee or Sammy Watkins, an instant, high-impact guy, I don't think anybody in Oxford would complain.
It's the same story at running back, where sophomores I'Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton would have been pushing Scott for carries even if Ole Miss hadn't brought in three new four-star running backs. It will be interesting to see how the targets and carries are divvied up and how quickly some potentially high-impact freshmen get their turn in the pool.
|A.J. Hawkins||RG||28 career starts|
|Evan Swindall||C||6'4, 295||Sr.||*** (5.5)||22 career starts|
|Aaron Morris||LG||6'5, 330||Jr.||**** (5.8)||18 career starts|
|Emmanuel McCray||LT||6'5, 316||Sr.||*** (5.5)||13 career starts|
|Pierce Burton||RT||6'6, 289||Sr.||*** (5.6)||13 career starts|
|Patrick Junen||RG||6'7, 325||Sr.||NR||10 career starts|
|Jared Duke||LG||6'7, 354||Sr.||*** (5.6)||6 career starts|
|Derrick Wilson||LT||6'2, 326||Sr.||NR|
|Ben Still||C||6'2, 280||So.||*** (5.5)|
|Justin Bell||RG||6'3, 335||So.||*** (5.6)|
|Robert Conyers||RT||6'3, 277||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Austin Douglas||C||6'2, 320||Jr.||** (5.4)|
|Laremy Tunsil||OL||6'6, 295||Fr.||***** (6.1)|
|Austin Golson||OL||6'6, 284||Fr.||**** (5.9)|
|Q1 Rk||10||1st Down Rk||30|
|Q2 Rk||52||2nd Down Rk||17|
|Q3 Rk||25||3rd Down Rk||45|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|C.J. Johnson||DE||6'3, 233||Jr.||***** (6.1)||13||41.5||5.5%||8||6.5||0||1||0||1|
|Issac Gross||NT||6'1, 254||So.||*** (5.7)||13||27.5||3.6%||10||2.5||0||1||0||0|
|Cameron Whigham||DE||6'3, 255||Sr.||** (5.2)||13||17.5||2.3%||2||1.5||0||0||0||2|
|Channing Ward||DE||6'4, 256||So.||**** (6.0)||12||15.0||2.0%||1.5||0||0||0||0||0|
|Woodrow Hamilton||NT||6'3, 292||So.||*** (5.6)||8||6.5||0.9%||1.5||1||0||0||0||0|
|Bryon Bennett||DT||6'2, 294||Jr.||*** (5.7)||13||6.0||0.8%||1.5||1||0||0||0||0|
|Carlton Martin||NT||6'2, 288||Jr.||**** (5.8)||12||4.0||0.5%||0.5||0.5||0||0||0||0|
|Carlos Thompson||DE||6'4, 243||Jr.||**** (5.8)|
|John Youngblood||DE||6'3, 237||RSFr.||** (5.4)|
|Lavon Hooks||DT||6'4, 290||Jr.||**** (6.0)|
|Robert Nkemdiche||DE||6'5, 260||Fr.||***** (6.1)|
7. Continuing the magic up front
In last year's preview, I talked about how disappointing the Ole Miss defensive line had been in 2011, ranking worse than 80th in Adj. Line Yards and worse than 100th in Adj. Sack Rate despite the presence of what were, at one time, some pretty high-caliber recruits. That changed dramatically in 2012. Defensive coordinator Dave Wommack and line coach Chris Kiffin unlocked this unit's potential. The Rebels improved all the way to ninth in Adj. Line Yards and a more than respectable 26th in Adj. Sack Rate. With a deep, extremely active set of tackles, Ole MIss both stood up to run blocking and frequently sliced into the backfield. This was the line Ole Miss was supposed to have all along.
In 2013, depth could potentially be an issue for the line, but wow, is there potential here. C.J. Johnson, a former blue-chipper who really started to play like it in 2012, returns, as does sophomore tackle Isaac Gross. But the next two tackles on the list are gone, as is end Jason Jones. Ole Miss had six linemen with at least four tackles for loss last fall, and now four are gone.
But if you're going to have to lean on newcomers to fill in the depth chart, they might as well include the No. 1 high school recruit and the No. 2 junior college recruit according to Rivals.com. Junior tackle Lavon Hooks rang up 21 tackles for loss at NE Mississippi Community College, while incoming freshman Robert Nkemdiche was the most sought-after high school senior in the country. Unlike Treadwell, the newcomers will perhaps face a little bit more pressure to succeed early, but with Johnson and Gross leading the way, they could still get away with playing complementary roles for a while. Jadeveon Clowney had Melvin Ingram and Devin Taylor leading the way when he was a freshman. For Nkemdiche, expectations are going to be oppressively high (nobody should have their name associated with Clowney's this much before even playing a down of college ball), but he'll have a steady, if potentially thin, supporting cast helping him along.
If the line can achieve at a level similar to last year's -- there's certainly potential for it to do so, even if the newcomers make it something less than a given -- then the experienced back seven of the defense could once again wreak havoc. The linebackers are fun, fast, mostly light and active, and after a year of junior college, Nick Brassell rejoins the squad, this time (evidently) as a defensive back. In all, four of the top-five linebackers return, as does every defensive back who logged at least 13.0 tackles last year. Last year's improvement came with a rather inexperienced defense (outside of the line). Experience is no longer an issue.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Denzel Nkemdiche||OLB||5'11, 203||So.||NR||13||59.5||7.9%||13||3||3||5||4||1|
|Mike Marry||MLB||6'3, 256||Sr.||*** (5.7)||13||57.5||7.6%||10.5||2.5||1||0||1||1|
|Serderius Bryant||OLB||5'9, 223||Jr.||*** (5.7)||13||22.5||3.0%||3.5||0||0||1||0||0|
|Keith Lewis||OLB||6'1, 235||Jr.||*** (5.6)||13||15.5||2.1%||0.5||0||0||0||0||0|
|D.T. Shackelford||MLB||6'1, 250||Sr.||**** (5.8)|
|Temario Strong||MLB||6'0, 240||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
8. The gift
The number of "ifs" it took for Robert Nkemdiche to land at Ole Miss was staggering. But the primary connection is easy to understand: Nkemdiche's relatively unrecruited brother, Denzel, not only showed up in Oxford to play for Houston Nutt two years prior, but under a new regime, Denzel improbably thrived as a severely undersized outside linebacker, or STINGER back in Wommack's flexible 4-2-5 (almost 4-1-6, with big Mike Marry as the anchor in the middle) scheme. On a defense full of former three, four and five-star recruits, the older Nkemdiche raised the biggest ruckus. You're not going to find many players capable of recording 13 tackles for loss and defensing eight passes, but that's what he did. And his success played an incredibly large role in bringing his younger brother to town. Robert got all of the recruiting hype, but he will have to play really well to catch up to the number of feats his brother has already recorded.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Cody Prewitt||FS||6'2, 214||Jr.||**** (5.8)||13||62.0||8.2%||5||1.5||2||4||2||2|
|Charles Sawyer||CB||5'11, 181||Sr.||*** (5.5)||13||53.5||7.1%||4||1.5||1||8||0||1|
|Trae Elston||ROV||6'0, 190||So.||*** (5.7)||12||46.5||6.2%||1||1||0||6||0||1|
|Senquez Golson||CB||5'9, 188||Jr.||*** (5.7)||12||29.0||3.8%||0.5||0||3||3||0||0|
|Mike Hilton||NB||5'8, 182||So.||*** (5.6)||12||27.5||3.6%||3.5||2||0||0||2||0|
|Dehendret Collins||CB||5'10, 185||Sr.||*** (5.6)||11||23.0||3.1%||3||0||3||5||0||0|
|Chief Brown||FS||6'1, 202||So.||*** (5.6)||12||13.5||1.8%||0||0||1||0||1||1|
|Cliff Coleman||DB||5'10, 181||Jr.||*** (5.6)||10||10.0||1.3%||0||0||0||5||0||0|
|Quintavius Burdette||ROV||5'11, 189||So.||** (5.2)||13||10.0||1.3%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Brishen Mathews||NB||6'0, 200||Sr.||*** (5.7)||13||8.0||1.1%||1||0||0||0||0||0|
|Anthony Standifer||CB||6'0, 182||So.||*** (5.7)||3||3.0||0.4%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Carlos Davis||CB||5'9, 163||So.||** (5.3)|
|Nick Brassell||CB||6'1, 180||Jr.||**** (5.9)|
|Antonio Conner||DB||6'2, 202||Fr.||**** (6.0)|
|Nathan Noble||6'4, 211||So.||27||63.6||11||40.7%|
|Jaylen Walton||KR||5'8, 167||So.||26||24.7||1|
|Carlos Davis||KR||5'9, 163||So.||4||15.8||0|
|Korvic Neat||PR||5'9, 164||Sr.||16||5.1||0|
|Special Teams F/+||111|
|Field Goal Pct||91|
|Kick Returns Avg||84|
|Punt Returns Avg||100|
9. Stop giving away points
There was one area in which Ole Miss regressed severely in 2012: special teams. The Rebels fell from 13th to 111th in Special Teams F/+, doing well in the kickoffs department and poorly just about everywhere else. You don't have to be awesome at special teams, but since it does make up about 10-15 percent of a given game, you are setting yourself up to fail if you aren't at least competent here.
2013 Schedule & Projection Factors
|30-Nov||at Mississippi State||51|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||38|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||23|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||-1 / +0.5|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||18 (8, 10)|
10. A strangely navigable slate
If Ole Miss is truly a Top 20-25 team this season, and it certainly could be, then there are a lot of wins to be found on the 2013 schedule. Yes, trips to Alabama and Texas are brutal, and yes, the Rebels will be underdogs in home games versus LSU and Texas A&M. But they play three insanely winnable non-conference games, their trips to Auburn and Mississippi State are far from intimidating, and they play Vanderbilt and Missouri from the East instead of, say, Georgia and Florida. A Top 25 team can go 9-3 against this schedule. Hell, a Top 15 team could go 10-2. But if the Rebels only consolidate their gains in 2013, if they take a year to get all of the pieces settled before a 2014 surge, and if they are only a Top 40 (or so) team, then expectations fall to simply reaching another bowl.
Typically when a team improves so dramatically in one year, regression toward the mean is likely the next season. Teams also don't typically come out of nowhere to sign a top-ten class after languishing at a much lower level in the preceding years. But Ole Miss is in no way typical. We knew that before Hugh Freeze even came to town, and we definitely know it now. I'm pretty optimistic about this team, but one probably doesn't make much money betting on the Rebels, one way or another.