Last year, Ole Miss just wasn't ready. Alabama won, 25-0. The Rebels gained only 205 yards on 78 plays. Alabama ran 40 times for 254 yards.
This year, Ole Miss fans have a sense of optimism that their team can hang with, and even beat, Alabama. Ole Miss handled Boise State, Vanderbilt, Louisiana-Lafayette, and Memphis to start the year 4-0, bringing ESPN's "College GameDay" to town for the first time ever. This is one of the biggest games in the history of Ole Miss athletics.
And there's a reason for Hugh Freeze's Year 3 rebuild being ahead of schedule: recruiting.
Over the last four classes, 25 percent of Ole Miss signees have been blue-chips (recruits rated four- or five-stars by the 247Sports Composite). Only 21 other teams have achieved that benchmark, and most are in states with more high school talent than Mississippi.
And it's been even better since Hugh Freeze's staff took over; their last two classes ranked No. 8 and No. 15 in overall Composite score. With a combination of renewed energy and knowledge of the crucial Memphis area, the former high school coach and his staff have connected with recruits.
Their best work came in 2013, when Ole Miss pulled in five-stars like defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche, offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, receiver Laquon Treadwell, and safety Tony Conner, plus seven four-star recruits. All four of the five-stars have been major hits for the program. All are starters and appear to have NFL potential. The added year of experience for the 2013 class has been a major reason for Ole Miss' improvement.
But while recruiting blue-chips at a 25 percent clip is good nationally, and a step up compared to what Ole Miss was doing before Freeze, it's actually not that impressive in the SEC West. And it's really not that impressive compared to Alabama. Seventy-three percent of the recruits signed by Nick Saban over the last four years have been blue-chip prospects, the best rate in the country.
What a win would mean for recruiting
If Ole Miss can pull off the upset, it would eliminate lingering notions of the Rebels having a mediocre program.
Freeze deserves credit for reducing the number of games the Rebels lose to bad teams. Ole Miss has lost 10 games in two years under Freeze, and all 10 losses are to bowl teams. On the flip side, what are Freeze's best wins, the ones that have impressed recruits and the college football world? 2012 victories over Auburn and Arkansas look nice because of name value, but those two teams were 3-9 and 4-8, respectively. Beating Mississippi State in 2012 was great for in-state recruiting, but isn't a victory that wowed recruits across the South.
Beating a 10-3 LSU team in 2013, however, does count. And Ole Miss needs more wins like that if it wants to catch the attention of more recruits outside the state of Mississippi. None would be bigger than a victory over Alabama.
But Ole Miss doesn't need to beat Alabama to see a recruiting bump. Simply playing a competitive game, which is very possible with Ole Miss' nasty defense, would show recruits that the Rebels are big-time. And then you factor in Ole Miss' famous gameday atmosphere, which will be at an all-time high on Saturday.
The Rebels have other opportunities left to score a big win. But Ole Miss needs to have at least one this year and take another step forward in the win column. That's especially true with rival Mississippi State having a great year, knocking off LSU in Baton Rouge and being favored to beat Texas A&M before Ole Miss plays Saturday.
In June, I wrote the following:
Ole Miss has gone 3-5 in conference in both of Freeze's seasons in Oxford. At some point, hope must turn into wins to maintain recruiting. And so far Freeze is just 15-11 as a head coach.
2014 needs to be the breakthrough year. The Rebels are lucky enough to draw Vanderbilt and Tennessee out of the East, neither of which is expected to make a bowl game. If Ole Miss can take care of its business against the teams it has outrecruited and knock off one of Alabama, Texas A&M, Auburn, or LSU, it can get to 9-3 with a shot at a bowl game to play for 10 wins. That's some tangible progress to sell to recruits. That quiets some rivals in the SEC.
Ole Miss' recruiting class sits at 13 commitments, four of whom are rated four-stars or better. The top player, Leo Lewis, is a fantastic linebacker prospect from Brookhaven (Miss.), who flipped from the Tide.
But four of 13 is still only 31 percent blue-chips. National champions typically recruit at at least a 50 percent clip, and heavies in the SEC West like Alabama, LSU, Auburn, and Texas A&M will be over that mark when the ink is dry on National Signing Day. Ole Miss' recruiting is closer to that of Mississippi State and Arkansas, and the Rebels want that to change.
It can. This is the first time that "GameDay" has ever been to the state of Mississippi, much less Ole Miss. That speaks to what Freeze has been able to build in short order. Ole Miss has a lot to sell.
Prospects on hand
Elite prospects are making their way to Oxford this weekend, from Mississippi and elsewhere. Because the state of Mississippi has two SEC teams, but rarely more than 15 or so blue-chip prospects on a yearly basis, both the Rebels and the Bulldogs must go out of state if they want to recruit at an elite level. It's an even tougher task when both schools are riding high, because the limited talent gets split up.
One major name is Damarkus Lodge, perhaps the most college-ready receiver in the country. Lodge is a four-star recruit from Cedar Hill (Texas), and a recent decommit from Texas A&M. The main competition at this point for Ole Miss seems to be Baylor. If Ole Miss is to pull top prospects from Texas, it's going to need to show that it is a top program. Another star receiver making the trip, according to Rebels247.com ($), is Alex Ofodile, a four-star Oregon commit from Columbia (Mo.).
Florida defensive end CeCe Jefferson, a five-star, is thought to be highest on Florida and Alabama. Linebacker Roquan Smith of Georgia could be a great fit at just 205 pounds for the Rebels' 4-2-5 defensive scheme. Smith is high on Georgia and Florida and holds other SEC offers. Four-star Memphis linebacker Joshua McMillon, an Alabama commit, may also make the trip. Could a win over the Tide be enough to sway the player from Freeze's old stomping ground? Offensive tackle Matt Womack is a Mississippi prep offensive tackle committed to LSU, and offensive line is a major position of need for the Rebels.
These prospects heard the noise Ole Miss made with its 2013 signing class. If Freeze and his staff can prove they've turned those recruits into an elite team, a new batch might just join up as well.