Ole Miss Rebels

Final Record: 6-6 overall, 3-5 SEC

Unlike the last three years, the team in the state of Mississippi entering the off-season with momentum and energy is not Mississippi State. It’s that ‘other’ 2-10 ’11 team in Oxford surging to take back the state of Mississippi. You could write a book on how Hugh Freeze turned this program around in his first season. His passion, energy and leadership for the game and for his team bled through on Saturdays.  It was fun to watch and witness.

Six wins, an Egg Bowl trophy and a bowl game is a great season, but let’s remember, this team could have beat Texas A&M (30-27), Vanderbilt (27-26) and LSU (41-35). All three were lost in the fourth quarter in the closing minutes. We’re nearly talking about a nine-win team. That’s astounding.

The biggest difference about the team is the fast-paced offense Freeze brought from Arkansas State. Last year in ’11, Ole Miss ran a total of 773 plays and scored 193 total points. With Freeze’s new system, the Rebels ran 876 plays and scored 371 points. That’s 103 more plays and 178 more points, nearly doubling last year’s output. Also, the defense was improved, too. The numbers might not jump off the page and smack you, but if you tuned into watch them play, you witnessed a very different defense than a year ago.  It was one of the most physical teams Alabama played all year.

Outside of quarterback Bo Wallace, Freeze transformed the offense with virtually the same roster. Wallace was inserted, and everyone on the offense elevated their play. Yeah, Wallace made some bonehead plays at times, but he was and is the right leader for this up-tempo offense. Wallace threw for 2,843 yards and 19 touchdowns. He turned it over 15 times through the air, but you have to remember he’s just a sophomore. Wallace also added eight touchdowns on the ground, and he will improve with one full year under his belt in Freeze’s system.

Running back Jeff Scott led the rushing attack and finished with 828 yards and six touchdowns. The Rebels rushed for 2,036 yards and 23 touchdowns, after compiling only 1,555 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. Scott’s play in the new offense really made Wallace better and allowed the passing game to take a jump.

But as good as Wallace or Scott certainly were, Donte Moncrief is the most physically gifted player on the roster. Just a sophomore, Moncrief became one of the SEC’s most impressive and explosive receivers. He tallied 60 catches for 948 yards and 10 touchdowns. Moncrief’s numbers got better not only because of Wallace’s passing ability, but as other receivers emerged around him, too. Vince Sanders, Ja-Mes Logan, Randall Mackey and Jeff Scott all caught more than 20 passes, with Sanders and Logan catching over 30. This group notched 23 touchdowns after catching nine (nine!) in ’11.

Ole Miss’ defense, numbers-wise, may not have improved that much, but their physicality and habit of flying to the football certainly did. There was energy, passion and a desire that wasn’t even close to being present under last year’s regime. Two players who epitomized the defensive attack are freshman linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche and defensive tackle Isaac Gross. Both Nkemdiche and Gross are undersized, but they don’t let size get in the way of heart and a physical desire to make you wake up sore on Sunday mornings. Defensive back Cody Prewitt, linebacker Mike Marry, defensive back Charles Sawyer and defensive end CJ Johnson all turned in great seasons. Johnson finished third on the team with 7.0 tackles for loss and led the team with 6.5 sacks.

There’s a great young nucleus of players for Freeze and his club to build around heading into the bowl game and the off-season. Recruiting is starting to pick up, too, as the Rebels have a shot with multiple top prospects. Beating Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl was a cherry on top of an already great season and turnaround.  But beating MSU to become bowl eligible: priceless.  And they didn’t just beat them, the Rebels pounded them 41-24.

Offensive Stud: Bo “Sunshine” Wallace was the lifeblood of the fast-paced offense. He made some dumb plays throughout 2012, but what do you expect from a sophomore making his first start in the SEC? He completed 63.4 percent of his passes with 19 touchdowns. He combined for a total of 27 touchdowns. Yes, his interception numbers have to decrease, but he will certainly improve with another off-season under his belt and another year in Freeze’s system. He’s just enough of a running threat to make defenses stay accountable for the quarterback on every play, thus making Scott and Moncrief all the more potent in the running and passing game.  Remember when he housed one for 58 yards against LSU?

Defensive Stud: Denzel Nkemdiche turned in a monster season for the Rebels. He led the team with 12 tackles for loss and 78 total tackles. He also tallied three sacks and three interceptions, too, also tying a team high. The redshirt freshman may be undersized at linebacker – more like a defensive back – but Nkemdiche hits like a truck. Nkemdiche is only one of a handful of exceptional young talent to build around.  Nkemdiche’s biggest impact may not come on the field, as if he’s able to get his younger brother and the #1 recruit in the country on campus next season, he will fulfill his task.

Where To Next: Next up is Pittsburgh in the Compass Bowl. The Rebels will have momentum heading into the off-season whether or not they win their bowl game, but beating Pitt and notching seven wins puts a wrap on a massive turnaround for Hugh Freeze and this bunch. There is now leadership in Oxford to take this team and program to the next level. The cultural change is well ahead of schedule.

Photo Credit: Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports