It's fair to wonder where Ole Miss is headed
There was no doubt. Now there are questions.
There was no reason to look in the shadows. Now there’s an excuse to do so.
Ole Miss should be one of the SEC West’s best once more, possibly strong enough to topple mighty Alabama from the division’s catbird seat, possibly good enough to finish in the top 10. Under Hugh Freeze, the Rebels have risen again.
But after a whirlwind offseason that included the Laremy Tunsil saga, revelations of NCAA rules violations and a self-imposed scholarship reduction, how can we look at Ole Miss the same way? How can we not cringe?
The Rebels have lost the benefit of the doubt. Even if they improve upon their 10-3 record from last year, win the SEC and make the College Football Playoff, recent events have allowed fog to settle. Some will wonder if there’s another cockroach hiding under a stone left unturned, if there’s more dirty laundry to be aired, if there’s more bad news waiting to reach light.
It was avoidable.
This is a shame, really. Ole Miss had made the SEC West more interesting. The Rebels provided needed variety outside the Alabama/Auburn/LSU power triangle. Chad Kelly became a firecracker in the pocket. Laquon Treadwell became a dynamic target downfield. Robert Nkemdiche, Marquis Haynes, Mike Hilton and Trae Elston became tormentors for offenses.
Before this offseason, Freeze was viewed as a Pied Piper on the recruiting trail who had the sideline moxie to make a sleepy program relevant. Last year, Ole Miss won 10 games for only the second time since 1971. The Rebels were victorious in the Sugar Bowl for the first time since the 1969 season.
Hotty Toddy became a hot brand ready to catch fire.
But the most recent offseason has taken the shine off those achievements and halted momentum. Say whatever you want about the NCAA’s rules, but perceptions about programs change when those rules are run through a paper shredder in a major way. Ask USC, Miami and other violators about turning Papa NCAA’s rulebook into confetti.
“As a team, we’ve been talking to prepare inside out,” tight end Evan Engram said at SEC Media Days. “We don’t worry about outsiders. It doesn’t matter. … So all the outside stuff, we’re not paying attention to it, and we’re definitely not letting it distract us.”
Still, the outside stuff can’t be ignored. The fact that a number of the violations happened on Freeze’s watch makes the situation more damning. What does the Rebels’ 34-18 run under him mean? What about the two victories over Alabama the past two years? What about the memories last season of coming within a razor-thin margin of claiming the SEC West?
All those questions and more are fair game now. Time will reveal how the NCAA judges Ole Miss. A postseason ban is possible.
But in the court of public opinion outside Oxford, some of the verdicts aren’t kind.
There’s not much the Rebels can do to chase those critics. The best they can do is win, even with recent trouble part of their reputation, even with that dark cloud parked over them like a slow-moving thunderstorm. Saturdays should serve as a release.
The good news is Kelly returns after leading the SEC with 4,042 yards passing and 31 touchdowns last year. Many programs throughout the conference must manage unknowns at quarterback, but Ole Miss enters with an exclamation mark at the position. That’s a fine asset to enjoy.
Still, the rebel yells in Mississippi will grow in strength throughout the fall, but there will be reason to wonder about Ole Miss’ tomorrow. The wins will come, but there will be room to imagine how much longer the good times will last.
Not long ago, the biggest question involving the Rebels was, “How far can they go?”
Now it seems more appropriate to ask, “What direction are they heading?”