Published July 27, 2012 - 12:58pm
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The first season of the Hugh Freeze era is just weeks away. Since taking over for Houston Nutt last December, Freeze has spent his time recruiting, rallying support from the Ole Miss faithful with inspirational speeches (and Tweets…and Retweets) all the while keeping expectations for this year as low as possible. Ole Miss has lost 14 straight SEC games and is 1-15 in conference play the last two seasons. Things went from bad in 2010 (4-8 and loss to FCS opponent Jacksonville State) to worse in Nutt’s final season (2-10, losses to Kentucky, Vanderbilt and a 3rd straight to Mississippi State and the much reviled Dan Mullen).
This team is at the bottom of the toughest football conference in the land. Freeze’s task is daunting.
His best friend this season just may be the low expectations he’s carefully set throughout the offseason. “We’ll compete hard for 60 minutes,” is the only promise Freeze has made. Not hidden in that oft-said quote is the reality with which the Rebels are faced – a treacherous schedule against the SEC West’s usual suspects and a non-conference date with Big 12 power Texas. And if that’s not scary enough the sinister schedulers at SEC headquarters thought it would be fun to see how Ole Miss could stand up to Georgia in Athens, Alabama at Tuscaloosa and LSU at Baton Rouge. It just doesn’t get any tougher.
As of today, Ole Miss is probably only favored in three games this season – the home opener against Central Arkansas (the Rebels have lost two straight home openers though), UTEP a week later, and at Tulane.
After the last two seasons and with an imposing schedule like that, most Ole Miss fans will tell you they’d be satisfied if Freeze can just deliver on that promise to field a team that fights hard for 60 minutes.
And fight hard they must because Ole Miss is plagued with a lack of depth at nearly every position.
After a failed three-quarterback rotation last year, Freeze is trying to find a starter between incoming JUCO transfer Bo Wallace and returning junior Barry Brunetti. Wallace appears to be the more consistent passing threat and had the better spring game, but Freeze has maintained that there is not a clear front runner and that he may not settle on a starter until several games into the season.
Jeff Scott is the only returning running back for Ole Miss. At 5’8” 175, Scott is a speedster, who runs best to the outside. He had 529 yards in his sophomore campaign. The Rebels need him to stay healthy, because as of right now he’s all they’ve got. Freeze is desperate for depth in his backfield, making this year the perfect situation for an incoming freshman to get some quick playing time. Two-time Tennessee Player of the Year I’Tavius Mathers will be given every opportunity.
If this Ole Miss team has a strength it’s at wide receiver. Sophomore wideout Donte Moncrief led the Rebels in receiving last year and seems set to make that leap many players make from their freshman to sophomore seasons. He’s got all the tools – size, soft hands, speed, physicality, and that instinctive ability to create separation between himself and the defender. Look for Moncrief to have an All-SEC caliber season. In Freeze spread system, there’s room for at least three receivers to get plenty of touches. Junior Ja-Mes Logan and former Mississippi high school player of the year Vincent Sanders should also see a lot of touches.
But those receivers won’t see the ball much if Ole Miss can’t get some protection from the offensive line. The Rebels lost three starters off the 2011 line and the new unit struggled to adjust to Freeze’s up-tempo offense in spring practice. They’ll need to gel quickly in the fall. Teams with weak offensive lines don’t have much success against the ferocious defenses of the SEC. The offensive line is a big-time concern going into fall.
But the biggest concern of all may be on the defensive side of the ball. Many an SEC Offensive Player of the Week was made by a date against Ole Miss last year. The Rebels were a joke on defense last year. There’s just not a kind way to say it. Time and time again the Rebels failed to stop the run or form any type of a pass rush. Hope for improving on that 2-10 record rests largely on fielding a defense that can stop the run and mount some form of a pass rush. The Rebels will depend on Byron Bennett, Gilbert Pena and Uriah Grant to clog the middle and hope for a pass rush from defensive ends C.J. Johnson, Cameron Whigham and heralded freshman Channing Ward. Seasoned veterans in middle linebacker Mike Marry and safety Charles Sawyer are the undisputed leaders on defense.
While the September schedule looks soft, don’t look for anyone at Ole Miss to get over confident. Central Arkansas finished their FCS schedule 9-4 last season and took Louisiana Tech to overtime. A loss to La. Tech was one of last season’s biggest embarrassments for Ole Miss, and let’s not forget that the Rebels have lost two consecutive home openers. The opening game against feisty Central Arkansas is far from a guarantee, but it should be of some comfort that Freeze did beat the Bears 53-24 last year in Jonesboro.
The Rebels host University of Texas – El Paso in week two. UTEP finished 5-7, 2-6 in Conference USA, and should present the Rebels with one of their best opportunities at a win, but from there the competition ratchets up very quickly as Mack Brown’s Texas Longhorns make a rare visit to Oxford the following the week.
After Central Arkansas and UTEP the only other game on the Ole Miss schedule where the Rebels will be favored is at Tulane. In this rebuilding year, wins against Alabama, LSU, Arkansas or a highly-ranked Georgia would be nothing short of miraculous. Likewise, a win against Texas is improbable at best. The key games for Ole Miss this season will be Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, Texas A&M and Auburn. The Rebels will most likely be underdogs in all four, but these are the only other opponents on the schedule Ole Miss has an outside chance at beating.
No matter how the season shakes out though, the tone of the Hugh Freeze’s career will be set on November 24 when the Rebels host Dan Mullen’s Mississippi State Bulldogs in the annual Battle for the Golden Egg. That game has been the most important date on Mullen’s calendar since the day he took over in Starkville three seasons ago, and Ole Miss hasn’t beaten the Bulldogs since. The Ole Miss faithful have tolerated their share of suffering the last two seasons, but losing to their cross-state rival three times in a row for the first time since 1942 has Rebel fans smarting for retribution against Mullen, who famously refuses to call Ole Miss by name and has been captured on video declaring that his team would never lose to the Rebels again. Freeze’s win-loss record after surviving one of the country’s toughest schedules will be quickly forgotten if the first year coach can finally prove Mullen wrong.
In the end, look for a dramatic difference in style points. Though his college coaching career has been brief, Freeze has already built the reputation for being a powerful motivator. That inspiration should reduce those large point spreads from last season significantly, but keep in mind that Ole Miss will most likely be an underdog in at least nine of its 12 games. That means three wins are expected. Anything more should be viewed as a successful season. Six or more would be miraculous, but Hugh Freeze would be the first to tell you he believes in those, so you never know.