Ole Miss is a program on the rise, and with the personnel departures at LSU and Texas A&M, the Rebels have a chance to make some noise in the SEC West. Injuries played a huge role in last year’s 8-5 record, but improving depth and a return to full strength by several players should help this team in 2014. Quarterback Bo Wallace needs to cut down on his mistakes, and the Rebels need Laquon Treadwell to fill the void left behind by Donte Moncrief at receiver. The biggest concern on offense is the line. However, the defense could be among the best in the SEC.
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Previewing Ole Miss’ Offense for 2014:
The Rebels return the most experienced quarterback in the SEC in Bo Wallace and have more than ample talent around him. Wallace has led the Rebels to some big wins — including an improbable 27–24 win over then-No. 6 LSU a year ago — but he was the subject of criticism for his struggles against rival Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl, a 17–10 overtime loss in which his fumble into the end zone ended the game. It was the unfortunate exclamation point on a four-turnover game in which Wallace threw three interceptions. Wallace, though, is in the best shape of his career and poised for a big senior season.
Wide receiver Donte Moncrief left a year early for the NFL, but there’s exciting potential for sophomore Laquon Treadwell, who moves from the slot to the outside. Treadwell caught 72 balls and was named the SEC’s top freshman by league coaches last year.
While Wallace struggled to the regular-season finish line in 2013, he was missing a key weapon. Evan Engram, a stretch-the-field tight end, is healthy again after doing enough in eight games as a true freshman to earn second-team All-SEC honors.
Running backs Jaylen Walton and I’Tavius Mathers combined to rush for almost 1,100 yards and nine touchdowns a year ago. They are juniors now. Look for sophomore quarterback Jeremy Liggins in short-yardage situations. He left the spring listed at 6'3", 296 pounds. That’s almost 40 pounds heavier than Jared Lorenzen’s playing weight at Kentucky in 2003.
Sophomore Laremy Tunsil at left tackle is already drawing the attention of NFL scouts. Junior Aaron Morris returns at left guard after tearing his ACL in the season opener last year. The Rebels have to replace a three-year starter at center, a competition that could see veteran Justin Bell move over from right guard.
Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast previews the Ole Miss Rebels for 2014:
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Previewing Ole Miss’ Defense for 2014:
Finally healthy, defensive end C.J. Johnson should lift last year’s subpar pass rush with help on the other side from Fadol Brown, one of two FBS transfers expected to fill key roles. Brown played at Florida International two years ago. That’s when Anthony Alford was a quarterback at Southern Mississippi. Now Alford’s an Ole Miss safety and is considered the team’s most athletic player.
Sophomore Robert Nkemdiche was the nation’s No. 1 recruit as a defensive end. He moved to tackle toward the end of last season and had eight tackles and a sack in his last two games.
There is experience at corner with senior Senquez Golson and junior Mike Hilton, and intriguing depth behind them in long and athletic Derrick Jones (6'2", 188) and junior college transfer Tee Shepard, once a Notre Dame signee. Senior free safety Cody Prewitt is a returning All-American, while sophomore Tony Conner is a rising star at the Huskie position in the Rebels’ 4-2-5 scheme.
Previewing Ole Miss’ Specialists for 2014:
The Rebels will miss the flip-the-field ability of punter Tyler Campbell. Freshman Gary Wunderlich could get a look here. Redshirt freshman Andy Pappanastos and senior Andrew Fletcher are competing to replace kicker Andrew Ritter. Both have impressive high school résumés, but there’s no college game experience for Pappanastos and precious little for Fletcher.
After the Rebels closed strong in Freeze’s debut season, then added a consensus top-10 recruiting class, they were a popular pick as a team to make a big leap in 2013. That didn’t happen, largely due to offensive struggles late in the season.
This season, with increased depth and more experience from the stellar 2013 recruits, expectations are soaring once again. This team has the potential to be a factor in the SEC West race. For that to happen they need Wallace — with talent around him — to reduce turnovers and deliver in big games more consistently.
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Five Reasons Why Athlon Sports is Picking Ole Miss at No. 18:
1. The door is open for a move in the SEC West
With LSU, Auburn, Alabama and Texas A&M losing some key pieces from last year’s team, Ole Miss and in-state rival Mississippi State have a chance to make some noise in the SEC West. The Rebels have improved their overall depth over the last two seasons, and 13 returning starters could help this team make a two-game improvement in the win column. Under coach Hugh Freeze, recruiting has improved, which has allowed this team to bolster its depth to challenge the top teams in the West.
2. A healthy Bo Wallace at quarterback
In his second year as Ole Miss’ starting quarterback, Wallace increased his completion percentage to 64.8 percent and lowered his interception total to 10. However, Wallace wasn’t healthy for most of the season due to a shoulder injury, and the offseason should allow him to return at full strength. Assuming Wallace makes another jump on the stat sheet, the Rebels’ offense should take off in 2014.
3. Concerns on the offensive line
This unit is coach Hugh Freeze’s biggest concern. The Rebels must replace Emmanuel McCray, Jared Duke, Evan Swindall and Pierce Burton as key members of last year’s offensive line. Left tackle Laremy Tunsil is already one of the best in the SEC, while guard Aaron Morris is back after suffering a torn ACL in the opener. With Tunsil, Morris and Justin Bell returning, the foundation is there for a solid group. However, filling out the final two spots and the overall depth is a concern that could last into the season.
4. Injuries on defense last season
Injuries hit Ole Miss’ defense hard last season, as a handful of key players missed time. Getting defensive end C.J. Johnson back to full strength will help the defensive line, while Robert Nkemdiche has settled into the rotation at tackle. The Rebels allowed 5.8 yards per play in SEC action in 2013 but should improve in 2014 with better injury luck and Nkemdiche’s presence on the interior.
5. Manageable schedule
Ole Miss plays in the toughest division in college football, so it’s hard to call this year’s schedule easy. However, Alabama and Auburn both visit Oxford, and the Rebels host rival Mississippi State. Also, Ole Miss catches Tennessee and Vanderbilt in crossover play. The Oct. 25 matchup against LSU is a huge swing game, but the Rebels defeated the Tigers last season and only lost by a touchdown or less in their last two meetings in Baton Rouge.