Baylor has turned the page to some degree, so Ole Miss is now Ground Zero for What’s Wrong with College Football. It’s a dubious time in Oxford, to say the least.
Just a few weeks before the start of fall camp, Hugh Freeze resigned — was forced to resign is probably more accurate — when his private life was revealed to be out of line with the Good Christian Man image he had projected for the Rebels.
Not to mention the undeniable fact that the NCAA has been breathing down Mississippi’s collective neck for years and could hand out severe punishment at any moment. Even if the sport’s governing body doesn’t appear to have the power it once did, there’a decent chance that more scholarship limitations and further postseason restrictions are on the horizon for this team.
How the Rebs react is anyone’s guess, although crumbling to 4-8 seems a lot more likely than rallying to 8-4.
2016 Projection: 9-3 (6-2)
Actual Record: 5-7 (2-6)
Matt Luke is the interim coach. While he might bleed cardinal red and navy blue, he’s never been more than a position coach and co-offensive coordinator at any level.
During his introductory press conference, Luke’s opening comments were overflowing with passion since being the top dog at Ole Miss is a dream come true no matter how he got the job. But once it was time to answer questions, his inexperience was quickly on display.
Immediately after Freeze’s departure, the usual suspects were rounded up as possible successors. Lane Kiffin, even though he’s yet to coach his first game at FAU. Les Miles, even though he was passed over by lesser programs like Houston and Purdue. Chip Kelly, even though he’s shied away from being considered for openings bigger than this one.
For now, the Rebels have to ride it out with Luke. Until the NCAA clears out of town once and for all, the odds of attracting a big-ticket hire are relatively slim.
So far, Shea Patterson has remained loyal to Mississippi. Had he decided to transfer, the floodgates may have opened.
The plan all along was for him to be the focal point of the offense by 2017, but instead of redshirting last year, he got a three-game crash course following the unforeseen season-ending injury to Chad Kelly. There were flashes of brilliance, too.
Even if Kelly was a pretty effective runner in Freeze’s offense, Patterson adds another element with his athleticism at the game’s most important position. But instead of looking to tuck it and run at the first chance, he prefers to buy extra time — both inside and outside the pocket — so his receivers can find a way to create separation downfield.
Wideouts Quincy Adeboyejo and Damore’ea Stringfellow are gone, as is tight end Evan Engram, who was sensational, but Patterson still has a deep and dangerous receiving corps lending support.
Strengths & Weaknesses
The Rebs should be able to throw the ball consistently once again with their new offensive coordinator, Phil Longo.
But what this offense needs is a consistent running game, as Ole Miss hasn’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since Dexter McCluster in 2009. While Longo is another product of the Air Raid system, his teams have been prolific on the ground more often than not.
Additionally, the offensive line appears to be in very good shape up and down the depth chart, which gives the Rebels an opportunity to be more balanced offensively. Defensively, however, there are a litany of question marks. Their top tackler, DeMarquis Gates, is back. As is their leading sacker, Marquis Haynes. Still, this D was miserable a season ago.
Fortunately, Mississippi has to like its chances in close games. Kicker Gary Wunderlich split the uprights on 22-of-23 attempts in 2016.
Week 1: vs. South Alabama (W)
Don’t sleep on the Sun Belt. The Jaguars went into Davis Wade Stadium this past season and upset rival Mississippi State.
Week 2: vs. UT-Martin (W)
The second of two warm-up games prior to a long trip out West, don’t expect the Rebs to show too much of Longo’s scheme tweaks.
Week 3: at Cal (L)
Look for the over/under for this one to be around 80. We might see a combined 800 yards passing, as well. Last possession wins.
Week 4: bye
Week 5: at Alabama (L)
Remember when Ole Miss beat the Crimson Tide two seasons in a row for the first time in school history? Yeah, ‘Bama does, too.
Week 6: at Auburn (L)
Back-to-back roadies in the Yellowhammer State is a tall order for any program in 2017, let alone one with a dark cloud following its every move these days.
Week 7: vs. Vanderbilt (W)
Even if Ralph Webb goes bananas on the Rebels, chances are the ‘Dores can’t score enough points to keep up with Patterson and Co.
Week 8: vs. LSU (L)
Contrasting styles collide at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Mississippi doesn’t like to run the ball, but the Tigers can’t really throw it. Derruis Guice has the edge over Patterson, at least for now.
Week 9: vs. Arkansas (W)
This matchup has been wild recently. Expect the scoreboard to be dented early and often, but the Rebs have at least one upset in them.
Week 10: at Kentucky (L)
Unless Ole Miss is radically better defending the run in 2017, then Benny Snell and whomever replaces the departed Stanley “Boom” Williams can do as they please.
Week 11: vs. UL-Lafayette (W)
Cupcakes are usually reserved for Week 12, not Week 11, but the Rebels need a break after six straight SEC battles. They should win this affair quite handily.
Week 12: vs. Texas A&M (W)
I might be down on Mississippi, but I think even less of the Aggies this season. There’s no reason to believe that A&M can slow down Patterson through the air.
Week 13: at Mississippi State (L)
The Rebs were blown out by the Bulldogs in historic fashion a year ago, and these programs have gone in opposite directions ever since. I see the Magnolia State gap widening before it narrows.
2017 Projection: 6-6 (3-5)
Final Standings: 6th in SEC West
To be honest, I have more faith in Ole Miss’s ability to defend itself than the NCAA’s ability to bring the hammer down hard.
But even before Freeze packed up and left, he admitted that the waiting game was agonizing enough. The Rebels have been getting slaughtered out on the recruiting trail, suffering decommitments left and right and being unable to land new pledges for the class of 2018.
This has to have some sort of effect on the current players in the locker room. Almost all of them were brought to Mississippi by Freeze. With a self-imposed bowl ban already in place, there’s little to play for — some teams relish the spoiler role, while others don’t. If things don’t go well early, the wheels could come off quickly.
Patterson gives them a puncher’s chance every Saturday, though. He may not realize it in 2017, but he has Offensive Player of the Year potential in the best conference in America.