What parts are missing for Ole Miss to take the next step?
The Ole Miss Rebels had a great season. One of the best in program history, in fact. But its not an elite team. Not yet.
While the obvious question that head coach Hugh Freeze needs to answer this offseason is who will take over for Bo Wallace at quarterback, that’s but one missing piece of the puzzle.
To become an elite program, the Rebels still need pieces on both sides of the ball.
Freeze is on pace to sign a third straight top 20 recruiting class, and though the third-year head coach is a proven developer of talent, Ole Miss needs elite-level production from its veterans and key contributions from the newcomers.
Depending on his status with the team in the wake of his recent legal troubles, Freeze could have a quick fix to the quarterback position. During his stint at East Mississippi Community College, Rebels quarterback signee Chad Kelly didn’t turn the ball over as frequently as Wallace and is consistent in his production.
The most decorated signal-caller in Rebels history statistically, Wallace was often streaky and struggled to string together good performances. Kelly is more athletic and will provide a greater compliment to a dormant running game. Should he be named the starter, Kelly’s ability to extend plays and his quick decision-making will aid a receiving corps that needs depth behind star Laquon Treadwell.
Offensively, what perhaps plagued the Rebels most in 2014 and hindered them from being great is the lack of a run game. Ole Miss averaged a pedestrian 155.5 yards per game on the ground this season, which ranks No. 75 in the FBS. Freeze and company relied on a running back-by-committee approach, resulting in a good, but not dominant, run game. The effects of which were felt cumulatively in the Peach Bowl loss to TCU in which the Rebels rushed for just nine yards. That left Wallace to shoulder the load and four Ole Miss turnovers.
The Rebels weren’t elite on offense in 2014; they weren’t Georgia, Alabama or Auburn. Consistency at quarterback and a more effective run game can elevate Freeze’s offense to the next level in 2015.
If Dave Wommack’s defense can play at the same level next season, Ole Miss will be positioned for a similar — if not better — 2015 campaign. That’s a big if, however.
Key pieces depart the secondary in cornerback Senquez Golson, the SEC’s leader in interceptions, and safety Cody Prewitt who quarterbacked the defense in 2014.
The 42 points surrendered to TCU was a gut-punch to end the season, but the body of work for the Rebels is unquestioned. Greater continuity on the defensive front is needed; Ole Miss’ run, pass defensive line rotations forfeited push in the trenches. The linebacking corps and secondary have been the strength of the Landshark defense, however, the Rebels need more production up front. Perhaps most needed is a big year from rising junior Robert Nkemdiche.
Freeze has built the foundation for a power in the SEC. To be elite, the house still needs supporting walls.