Ole Miss 2013: SEC West contender or pretender?

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It may seem a little bit early still, considering Ole Miss just finished 7-6 and Hugh Freeze is just a year into the job. But so promising was Ole Miss’ turnaround in 2012 and so sexy is the stellar recruiting class, prompting talk of the Rebels competing for a division crown in 2013.

The national college football eye has descended on Oxford after one of the best recruiting hauls in school history, and with it comes that nagging question everyone seems to be asking, “Well, what does this mean?” Does the stellar turnaround in 2012 and star-studded recruiting haul catapult the Rebels to be a contender in the SEC West?

It just so happens that the Rebels play within the same division as one of the biggest dynasties in college football history residing in Tuscaloosa and the most electrifying offense and player in the country in Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel.

So, to think they’re a favorite in the West is quite presumptuous. Nonetheless everyone wants to base it solely on the recruiting class. And although they aren’t a favorite, they are certainly a contender, and here’s five reasons why…and none of them include their excellent recruiting class:

1. 18 returning starters: The Rebels enter into year two under Hugh Freeze as an experienced team. Ole Miss returns eight starters on offense and nine on defense, highlighted by returners who include the top passer, top two pass catchers and top two rushers on offense, as well as their six top tacklers on defense. Honestly, the Rebels lose one impact offensive lineman in AJ Hawkins and two defensive tackles in Uriah Grant and Gilbert Pena. That’s it. Remember, this is the same team that lost to Texas A&M late in the fourth quarter; this is the same team that lost to the Commodores in the closing minutes and was gutted late in the waning minutes on the road at LSU. They lost all three games by a combined 10 points. This group is hungry and experienced, and they enter ‘13 with a chip on their shoulder. We’re nearly talking about a 10-win team in Freeze’s first season, and he returns basically the entire roster.

2. 2nd year head coaches: There’s just something about second-year head coaches and success in the SEC. 2012 wasn’t just a fluke, and we know Freeze can coach because he took a 2-10 roster and transformed them into a 7-6 team. And 7-6 just happens to be the exact record Nick Saban and Will Muschamp finished in their first years at Alabama and Florida. The very next season Saban and Muschamp posted 12- and 11-win seasons respectively. Urban Meyer also won a national championship in his second season, and Les Miles reeled off 11 wins in his. Now, I’m not saying Ole Miss is on that level, because the team Freeze inherited isn’t anywhere close to any of those four, but the success and history of second-year head coach bodes well for Freeze, especially with 18 returning starters and incoming skill players who will make an impact.

3. Division is top heavy: The SEC West is looking for that third best team entering 2013. In recent history, there was Alabama, LSU and Arkansas, who all contended for the divisional crown, but now the Tigers and Razorbacks are falling. Likewise, Mississippi State and Auburn could struggle yet again. And when I say the third best team, I mean the team that goes 10-2 with losses to the two favorites in Texas A&M and Alabama. With LSU losing so many starters, it’s naive to think they are automatically going to contend for a division again. MSU showed they’re not as good of a football team as the Rebels, and Arkansas and Auburn cleaned house and are starting over. Playing Alabama is as tough as it gets, but let’s not forget the Aggies had to score twice with less than seven minutes in the fourth quarter to pull out a victory. Ole Miss only losing to Alabama is certainly a bold prediction, but it’s certainly not out of the question either.

4. Strong defensive line: The SEC is known for its great defensive linemen, and Ole Miss traded in the used car for a new Benz. In fact, they signed the best JUCO defensive tackle in Lavon Hooks, who will make the Rebels instantly better, along with the top defensive end and player in the country in Robert Nkemdiche. It’s a big assumption to think Nkemdiche is going to have a Jadeveon Clowney-type effect in his first season, but add Hooks and Nkemdiche to Isaac Gross, CJ Johnson and Channing Ward, and you have a beautiful collision of massive SEC defensive linemen. Even with losing Grant and Pena, the Rebels received a big upgrade at the most notable position in the SEC.

5. Schedule: The schedule sets up perfectly for the Rebels in 2013. Outside of a trip to Tuscaloosa, no other road divisional games should worry the Rebels. If so, tell me which ones. Vanderbilt, Auburn or Mississippi State? Of course, home games against Texas A&M and LSU are of utmost importance, but the 12 regular season opponents they will face only won 56 percent of their games in 2012. In fact, Ole Miss’ opponents finished 87-68 in ‘12, which is the third easiest schedule based on opponents winning percentage for 2013.

Ole Miss wants nothing given to them, and Hugh Freeze, along with the players, would tell you they want to earn respect on the field. And the entire college football world will be tuning in to see how the momentum from a strong turnaround and an even stronger recruiting class will impact one of the biggest dark horses in the SEC for 2013.

Ole Miss is a contender in the SEC West for 2013, and they are only a year or two away from being the favorite.

Photo Credit: Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

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