College football is finally upon us. After months of waiting, recruiting, media days, and crazy speculation, the opening kick is just days away. And the Ole Miss Football Rebels are ready to get after it.
With another nationally televised Thursday night game lined up as the season-opener, excitement from the team and the fans is high. And coming off the heels of a lackluster end to the 2013 season, Rebel Nation is hoping to start what could be a big season off with a bang.
Personally, I think this will be a breakout year for Coach Hugh Freeze and his Rebels.
So to get you prepared for all things Ole Miss Football, here are some general thoughts, a brief game-by-game breakdown, and the ever-important (never remotely correct) season prediction.
Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell, Laremy Tunsil, and the rest of the incredible 2013 recruiting class got their feet wet last year. Treadwell was SEC Freshman of the Year and led the team in receptions (as defenses focused on now Indianapolis Colt Donte Moncrief). Tunsil had a great season on the O-line and has many people thinking that he could be the best LT in the SEC. Expectations are high for these two. But Nkemdiche is still the one on whom Rebel faithful are hanging their hope. After an up-and-down freshman campaign that saw some behavior issues on the field, some detrimental hero playing, and a modest set of stats, Nkemdiche is poised to break out. He’s measured at 6’5” and weighs in at 290 lbs. And he has a six-pack. He’s also pretty fast. Needless to say, he’s a genetic freak. In practices, the offensive line (albeit a thin one) has had a nearly impossible time containing him. Look for him to get to opposing QBs early and often. Mix these three playmakers in with the rest of the sophomore class, and you have a group of youngsters that will make their presence known in every game.
Coach Hugh Freeze has the Rebels on a serious upward trajectory. With an unexpected bowl win in his first season, landing the aforementioned Super Sophs, and some big victories last season capped off by another bowl win, Freeze has people down in Oxford believing. He also has a pretty good jumpstart on the Class of 2016 recruits and just flipped a big prospect from Nick Saban’s grasp. Obviously it’s early for those kids, however it still says a lot about Freeze’s ability to recruit if he can flip kids from Alabama. But despite being a recruiting mastermind and having two good seasons, fans are ready for a great season with more than one or two big wins. Rebel fans want to compete for the SEC and a lot of them think Freeze is the guy that can lead the team to Atlanta.
No Place Like Home:
This year’s schedule sets Ole Miss up for some big success. A lackluster non-conference slate should give the Rebels four relatively easy wins, and drawing Alabama and Auburn at home along with a down Tennessee team and a Mississippi State team Ole Miss badly wants revenge against makes many believe Oxford could provide some fireworks on Saturday this fall. If Ole Miss could get one or both of the games against foes from Alabama, a 10-win season is absolutely on the table. The two tough road tests are against a Johnny Football-less Texas A&M and a typically strong LSU team. The past few seasons have had some rough away games, so Ole Miss will be expected to take advantage of this friendly schedule.
Dr. Bo Knows:
Rebel QB Bo Wallace is a senior. He says he’s as healthy as he’s ever been. Coaches testify that his arm strength is back. He’s got the potential to break every Ole Miss QB record this season. So will his arm carry the Rebels to glory? Can he limit the interceptions and fumbles that have haunted him in the past? It’s crazy to think this, but Ole Miss is more stable at QB than it has been in over 10 years, so if Wallace stays healthy and controls his passes, who knows how far Ole Miss can go?
Transfers Damor’ea Stringfellow (WR) and Christian Morris (OL), both highly touted recruits out of high school, are awaiting decisions from the NCAA regarding their eligibility. If they end up getting to play this year, they will both be expected to contribute immediately.
The offensive line is thin. Dangerously thin. Laremy Tunsil can only do so much. This will be the weakest group for the Rebels this season. Look for freshmen and walk-ons to see plenty of time on the O-line, something Ole Miss fan never want to hear given the talent of opposing defensive lines in the SEC.
The injury bug bit Ole Miss hard last year leading up to the fall and in the first few games. And in 2014 cornerbacks Tee Shepard and Carlos Davis (also a punt return specialist) have been ruled out for the year. While the secondary is deep, both of those losses sting a good bit. Rebel faithful are all praying that these are the only big injuries the team will have to deal with this season.
A few years ago, opening the season against Boise State would have been a death wish for Ole Miss. The Broncos made a name for themselves by dominating teams their own size and upsetting all sorts of giants around the world of college football. But with Chris Petersen coaching the University of Washington now, there’s a pretty consensus thought that Boise will not be shocking the world anytime this year. Needless to say Ole Miss is favored by double digits in their matchup, and I doubt the Broncos will travel well enough to have their fans make a difference in the always SEC friendly Georgia Dome (August 28th). The Rebs should win this one, but I expect it to be a competitive game that will be a fun way to kickoff the football season on a Thursday night.
As for the rest of the non-conference schedule, I don’t expect any scares for Ole Miss and its fans. They will be vastly superior to Louisiana-Lafayette (September 13th), Memphis (September 27th), and Presbyterian (November 8th). The Memphis game should be a fun one as it will rekindle a regional rivalry that makes for a good day in Oxford, and it will also serve as a game to honor former Rebel Chucky Mullins. If you’re unfamiliar with him, look for the SEC Network special It’s Time that will feature his story.
Vanderbilt – September 6th:
James Franklin is gone. Jordan Matthews is gone. New Coach Derek Mason has agreed to move the game to LP Field, home of the Tennessee Titans, which will allow more Ole Miss fans to attend. Experience on the field and on the sidelines will win the game for the Rebels. Essentially being an Ole Miss home game in Nashville turns the win into a convincing one.
Alabama – October 4th:
If both teams enter this game undefeated, which I predict they will, this will be the biggest Ole Miss home game in history. It will likely host ESPN College GameDay (powered by the Home Depot), and it will be a prime opportunity for the Rebels to make a jump into the upper tier of the SEC West. Alabama will be breaking in a new QB playing in his first true road test. The Tide have had Ole Miss’ number for what feels like decades, but if Ole Miss is going to pull the upset, this is the year. A lot of media folks are picking the Rebels. So am I.
Texas A&M – October 11th:
Ole Miss will ride into College Station on a serious high after upsetting Alabama. Texas A&M will be without Johnny Manziel who orchestrated not one but two game winning drive against the Rebels over the past two seasons. But talent-wise, the Aggies will still be in good shape. And Kevin Sumlin is quickly becoming one of the best coaches in the country. This is a tossup in many people’s books. But I think Ole Miss will be a little too confident and drop this one in a heartbreaker at Kyle Field.
Tennessee – October 18th:
Coach Butch Jones has things heading in the right direction up in Knoxville, but the pieces are far from all fitting together in 2014. The Vols will come to Oxford and an angry Ole Miss team will take care of them with relative ease. Look for a younger running back to breakout in this game. And expect the Rebel defense to absolutely overwhelm Tennessee.
LSU – October 25th:
I fully expect that this will be a night game with a whole lot of hype down on the bayou. Tiger Stadium will be rocking. Two nationally ranked teams will be playing with their eyes on the SEC West crown. The world will be picking LSU, but in the wise words of Mr. Lee Corso, “Not so fast.” I think Hugh Freeze pulls some tricks out of his sleeve for this one, and the Rebels prevail.
Auburn – November 1st:
Last season’s matchup between Ole Miss and Auburn was an interesting and ugly one. Nobody expected Auburn to do what they did in 2013, and not many people predicted them to even beat Ole Miss. But nobody can deny that Gus Malzahn has things rolling down on the Plains. I expect that the Tigers will come to Oxford and take care of business. This will be the first loss the Rebels suffer at home in 2014.
Arkansas – November 22nd:
Bret Bielema had a rough first season in Fayetteville. His smash mouth style of football needs some size, and he just couldn’t make anything happen with his youngsters and Petrino’s leftover speedsters. I still think he’s a couple of years away from making any kind of noise. Rebels win easy.
Mississippi State – November 29th:
Ole Miss has one thing in mind for the Egg Bowl. Revenge. Last season ended on such a sour note for Bo Wallace and the Rebels. Fumbling the game away on the goal line. Having Dan Mullen get another whole year to gloat. Hearing all the preseason hype of a largely unproven Dak Prescott. These factors will fire Ole Miss up, and playing this one in Oxford certainly doesn’t hurt. I expect revenge to be had. Ole Miss shuts State down.
As I see it, the Rebels finish 10-2, second in the SEC West behind Alabama. Ole Miss has the breakout year they need, but fall short of Atlanta and the new College Football Playoff. Expect to see the Rebels in one of the four non-semifinal New Year’s Bowls (Orange, Cotton, Peach or Fiesta) depending on how things shake out with the new system. *
So there you have it, a season’s worth of insight and predictions. Take them with a grain of salt because we all know it only takes one game to change everything.
I’m excited to be back covering Ole Miss for MemphiSport.com. Check back in for full previews of the Boise State and Memphis match-ups as well as all of the SEC games.
*Disclaimer: The new playoff system is still confusing. But this is how I understand it: top four teams play in Sugar and Rose Bowls. Winners meet in Dallas for National Championship. Other conference obligations fill out Orange, Cotton, Peach, and Fiesta. Highest ranked available teams fill leftover slots in those four bowls. If I’m wrong about this, please feel free to correct me.
Warner Russell covers Ole Miss Football for MemphiSport. Read his non-sports stuff here. Follow him on Twitter @uncle_warny.