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Hugh Freeze’s Ole Miss faces NCAA doomsday. SEC rivals prep for either transfers or trouble

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The Rebels have already bowl banned themselves in response to an expanded list of allegations. How big could this get?

Auburn v Mississippi Photo by Butch Dill/Getty Images

“Complete uncertainty at every level.”

Those are the words of one source inside the University of Mississippi in regard to the future of Ole Miss’ football program. Wednesday, the school outlined new allegations from the NCAA against the football program.

How Ole Miss will formulate its response to the new total of 21 allegations has yet to be revealed publicly — the school will make public its response to the NCAA within 90 days — but here are the key points at this moment.

1. Laremy Tunsil’s NFL draft nightmare extended the NCAA’s investigation, but Tunsil isn’t directly implicated in the new allegations.

Former Ole Miss left tackle Tunsil’s draft night debacle last April helped the NCAA lengthen its investigative period against the Rebels. But none of the eight new allegations announced on Wednesday directly involve Tunsil.

Multiple sources connected to the NCAA investigation of Ole Miss have confirmed to SB Nation that the draft night social media images involving Tunsil were not the focus of the continued investigation, but “a means to an end” for the NCAA to continue working on leads.

According to sources, the claims of Tunsil’s former stepfather, Lindsey Miller, were investigated by the NCAA but did not produce enough material for the NCAA to pursue violations specific to Miller’s claims.

The focus of the new allegations centers on three players Ole Miss said are not currently on scholarship, though there’s one potential exception that could involve Tunsil. From the transcript of Ole Miss’ video:

Third, it is alleged that Former Staff Member A violated the NCAA principles of ethical conduct when he knowingly committed NCAA recruiting violations between March 2014 and February 2015 and when he knowingly provided false or misleading information to the institution and enforcement staff in 2016. This is charged as a Level I violation.

It’s possible the draft night leaks — screenshots of alleged text messages to Ole Miss Assistant Athletic Director of Football Operations John Miller asking for money to pay his mother’s rent and utility bills — are included in the allegations against “Former Staff Member A.”

But even if Tunsil is connected to this single allegation, the bulk of the amended NOA doesn’t involve the allegations against him from his ex-stepfather or the still-anonymous social media leaks.

2. Ole Miss is still standing by Hugh Freeze.

Ole Miss Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter was joined by Athletics Director Ross Bjork and head coach Hugh Freeze in Wednesday’s video.

Freeze is now squarely at the center of the NCAA’s investigation, as he’s tied to a pair of new Level I (the most serious level) accusations: “Head Coach Responsibility Legislation” and the big one, “Lack of Institutional Control,” which the NCAA upgraded from the Level III violation “Failure to Monitor” it’d originally accused Ole Miss of.

The joint presence of Vitter, Bjork, and Freeze was intended to portray “a unity inside the university,” according to one source at Ole Miss, but supporting Freeze is now an inarguable risk, considering the possibility of the Committee on Infractions ruling Ole Miss failed to monitor NCAA compliance.

Inside Ole Miss, there’s no clarity as to the long-term future of the football coach, but multiple university sources agreed that the decision to put Freeze and Bjork alongside Chancellor Vitter publicly bodes well for their short-term futures.

Unlike other universities, Ole Miss has no board of trustees or regents specific to the school. Dismissing Bjork and/or Freeze would fall to Vitter, who became chancellor in January 2016. Multiple sources indicated to SB Nation that Vitter, still a relative newcomer, might have lacked the support and equity to clean house to this point.

If Freeze is terminated before the start of the 2017 season, the likeliest candidate for interim head coach is offensive line coach and former Rebel player Matt Luke, who turned down an offer for the same position at South Carolina this offseason and was a candidate for the head coaching job at Troy in 2014.

3. The worst possible scenario for Ole Miss is still in play.

If the Committee agrees with the case against Ole Miss, a two-year bowl ban is a real possibility. The Rebels self-imposed a one-year ban on Wednesday, but the difference of a season is massive; a two-year ban would allow for current scholarship players to transfer without penalty.

Ole Miss would then have to survive being eaten alive by defections in addition to any potential scholarship restrictions the COI hands out.

Rival schools are not wasting time. When contacted by SB Nation Wednesday evening, coaches on two different SEC staffs confirmed their schools will evaluate the Rebels’ roster for potential talent, in case a two-year ban allowed transfers to play immediately.

This is a nightmare scenario for elite programs with deep rosters (USC and Penn State in the last decade), but for Ole Miss it would be something worse. Despite multiple New Year’s bowl appearances, the Rebels never established depth comparable to SEC rivals like LSU or Alabama.

Simply put, they’re more fiscally fragile, operating in one of the nation’s poorest states. And unlike the Trojans or Nittany Lions, the Rebels would have to attempt a rebuild inside college football’s toughest division.

4. The worst possible scenario for the SEC is still in play.

The NCAA’s amended NOA against Ole Miss is a shot to kill, but the amended allegations are built almost entirely on incidents involving players who signed at other universities. SB Nation can confirm that three of the student athletes listed in the amended NOA are current or recent players for other SEC programs.

Obviously Ole Miss can’t retaliate in any formal way. But far from the above-board practices of major programs, there’s a dense network of boosters, university employees, and middlemen who both create and solve problems in recruiting.

Rival coaching staffs file formal complaints against one another regularly, but among individuals who do the actual compensating of recruits, the philosophy of mutually assured destruction has been a loose rule.

If Ole Miss or any SEC program goes completely under for recruiting violations tied directly to allegations from players at rival schools, the omerta among rival “bagmen” turns null. The prevailing sentiment in SEC recruiting is that no one dies alone. It’s possible the NCAA has not considered this scenario, or it’s possible it’s been aiming to create just such a moment.