Talking SEC championship: Ole Miss Rebels
SDS is taking a look at each SEC Championship contender and their chances of winning in Atlanta. We’ll list three reasons why each team will win and three reasons why each team will not.
OLE MISS REBELS
Oct. 4, 2014 — No. 11 Ole Miss beats No. 3 Alabama.
The last time the Rebels beat the Crimson Tide was back in 2003. The following day, Ole Miss took Alabama’s place as No. 3 in the nation, according to the Associated Press poll.
Unfortunately, the wins and the ranking did not last. As for most SEC teams, the schedule remained painstakingly difficult. But despite a bowl-game loss, last year’s Ole Miss was only the sixth Rebels team to finish a season with nine or more wins since 1973.
Ole Miss wants to do it again in 2015, and do it better. It wants to definitively prove that it is on the same level as Alabama and Auburn. Will this season be that season? Can Ole Miss win the SEC West?
THREE REASONS WHY
1. Defense: Ole Miss fielded the best scoring defense and the 13th-best overall defense in the country last year. With few holes to plug within the defensive line and seven returning starters, it feels like nothing is standing in the Rebels’ way of continuing their stingy defense.
Leading the way is the touted, much-discussed defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, who ranked first on our list of 10 best Ole Miss players and who is expected to have a huge season. For teams with shaky offensive lines, like Florida and Mississippi State, Nkemdiche’s elite 1-on-1 ability will become a nightmare to manage. Also in the mix will be defensive end Marquis Hayes, who lead the team last year in sacks, and defensive tackle Issac Gross.
We also can’t forget about the Ole Miss secondary, which could be just as good despite losing two All-Americans. Mike Hilton, who has played every position available to him in the secondary, was moved to Rover safety this spring, which will give him freedom to own the back part of the defense and flex his ballhawk skills. Tony Conner, a potential high-round NFL draft pick, and Trae Elston return to the secondary as well. Then there’s Tee Shephard and Tony Bridges, two unproven junior-college cornerbacks showing their talent and size advantage during practice.
2. Wide receivers: Even ESPN cannot deny that the Rebels receiving corps looks nothing short of elite. In their ranking of SEC wide receiver units, Ole Miss came in at second, just after Texas A&M. It’s easy to understand why.
One of the best wide receivers in the SEC, Laquon Treadwell, leads the corps. After only playing in nine games, Treadwell had 632 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns. Now he’s back from his leg injury and ready to better his stats. Cody Core, Quincy Adeboyejo, and Markell Pack also return to the squad. There’s also Washington transfer Damore’ea Stringfellow, who has been beating coverages and exciting the coaches during preseason camp.
Finally, a discussion of Ole Miss’ receiving talent would not be complete without mentioning tight end Evan Engram, who is likely the best at what he does in the entire conference. He had even more receiving yards than Treadwell last season (662), and will be a major factor on the offense again.
3. Class of 2013: We’ve already name-dropped a lot of them, but the members of the Ole Miss football class of 2013 as a group can go ahead and take a majority of the credit for boosting the team up to where it is now. 247Sports’ composite rankings slotted the 2013 Ole Miss recruiting class as the ninth-best in the nation. All four of its five-star players are upperclassmen, ready to collect their due in what may be their last year of college play.
Members of this class include Nkemdiche, Treadwell, Engram, Conner, as well as offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, offensive lineman Austin Golson, and running back Jordan Wilkins. All of these players made major contributions on their areas of the field last year, and some of them are sure-thing high draft picks.
All of them are also motivated to obtain what they haven’t been able to do yet: add “SEC West champions” to their resumes.
THREE REASONS WHY NOT
1. Quarterback: After three years with a steady quarterback, Ole Miss needs to get used to a new one. Actually, Ole Miss still has yet to find who that new one will be, which makes the task doubly challenging.
Chad Kelly, Ryan Buchanan (also class of 2013, just saying), and DeVante Kincade still are battling it out during practice. Hugh Freeze spoke on Tuesday about how a favorite has emerged in his mind, but he’s not ready to announce anything. This offseason in particular, a lot of SEC teams have struggled to name starting quarterbacks, which has made it seem acceptable. But Arkansas, Auburn, Mississippi State and Texas A&M all already have strong starters, and they are all on the Ole Miss schedule.
2. Injuries: Many of Ole Miss’ star players are coming back from injuries. Treadwell is back from a leg injury, Tunsil is back from a fractured fibula and Denzel Nkemdiche is back from a broken ankle. While these players are cited as feeling stronger every day, the fear that these critical members of the team will re-injure themselves is present.
Ole Miss also still has players who are injured and likely won’t be able to contribute in the early stretch of the season. On the offensive line, offensive guard Aaron Morris is slow to recover from a torn ACL and Rod Taylor has suffered a shoulder injury. Four-star freshman running back Eric Swinney, who was expected to make an impact immediately, incurred a stress fracture in his leg in July. There’s a good chance he will be out for the entire season.
Last year’s game against LSU started strong but ended horribly for the Rebels, and that in large part was due to Tunsil, the Nkemdiche brothers and former safety Cody Prewitt all leaving the game due to injuries. If injuries become an issue again during 2015, Ole Miss should expect a similar downward slide.
3. Schedule: Everyone who is part of the SEC knows that its conference play is the hardest in the nation. SEC teams sabotage each other’s postseason goals every single year. Ole Miss has done its share of sabotaging in the past, but as the Rebels climb in the ranks they quickly will find themselves fending off the receiving end of that sabotage.
First off, there is no getting around Alabama, Auburn or LSU. Ole Miss shocked Alabama last year, but the chances of that happening again — in Tuscaloosa — are slim. Auburn currently is the SEC favorite and a popular pick to make it into the College Football Playoff field. LSU has strong talent all over the field and wants to win another SEC West title itself.
In addition to the big three, Ole Miss has to worry about the other SEC West teams that are in its same boat: on the cusp of greatness and attempting to edge themselves in. Arkansas has few weaknesses. Mississippi State has Dak Prescott. Texas A&M has Myles Garrett and an intimidating offense. The entire second half of Ole Miss’ schedule, in which it has to play these teams along with LSU and Auburn, could break the Rebels.