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Is 2015 Now or Never for Ole Miss in the SEC West?

Hugh Freeze

Hugh Freeze

Ole Miss has real talent. I don’t mean like possible SEC fly-in-the-ointment talent. I mean we should recognize this Rebel team for what it is — the SEC team with the most rising seniors and arguably the most proven talent on their roster.

They have household names and highly regarded, NFL-caliber players like wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, left tackle Laremy Tunsil, defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, safety/linebacker Tony Conner and tight end Evan Engram —all juniors. But, more importantly, Hugh Freeze’s team returns a bevy of solid seniors like four offensive linemen (not including Tunsil), defensive end C.J. Johnson, outside linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche, and a pair of safeties in Mike Hilton and Trae Elston. All in all, aside from the previously mentioned juniors, the Rebels may start six returning starters who are seniors on offense and another six on defense.

Related: Ole Miss Rebels 2015 Preview and Prediction

Ole Miss has the right talent to win the West in 2015 and play in the SEC Championship Game for the first time.

But, Ole Miss hasn’t proved it has any staying power.

In 2003, Eli Manning led the Rebels to their seventh consecutive winning season and their first 10-win season in 31 years. It was longest stretch for Ole Miss without a losing season and first season with double-digit wins since John Vaught was the head coach in Oxford.

The next season, without Manning, then-head coach David Cutcliffe learned what Billy Brewer had in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, what Houston Nutt learned in 2010 and ‘11, and what Freeze (assuming he stays long enough) will learn: it’s possible to build but much harder to maintain a consistent program against the powers in the SEC West. The Rebels went 4-7 in 2004 and Cutcliffe was fired.

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Fast-forward to September 2009, Ole Miss was ranked fourth in the country. The Rebels had received their highest Associated Press preseason ranking since (again) the Vaught era, and a year earlier the Rebels had beaten eventual national champion Florida and ended the season on a six-game winning streak, including victories over Auburn and LSU. Nutt was the reigning SEC Coach of the Year, and he had signed a 37-player strong recruiting class in February that was ranked behind just Alabama and LSU in the conference.

Nutt had built a fairly strong program at Arkansas over the course of a decade, but at this point in his tenure in Oxford, there seemed to be a “now or never” vibe associated with the program. Less than 12 months later, the Rebels started the 2010 season with a loss at home to Jacksonville State. Over the next two seasons Ole Miss would lose 17 more games and give up more than 50 points four times. The Rebels simply couldn’t keep replacing the quality players they were losing and stay competitive in the SEC.

So what does that stuff have to do with the 2015 team? The funny thing about the seasons your program is chock-full of NFL-ready juniors and seniors; those tend to be the most defining.

Related: SEC 2015 Predictions

Either Freeze will prove to better a player-developer than his predecessors (in which case why should we expect him to stay?), or he’ll suffer a similar fate. Either way, competing with contemporary college football giants like Alabama, LSU and Auburn will always be difficult for Ole Miss. Case in point, according to 247 Sports’ annual recruiting class rankings, Ole Miss finished with its highest-ranked class since 2013 (the class that produced Treadwell, Engram, Tunsil, Robert Nkemdiche and Conner) this February. And yet, that was only good enough to finish fifth in the SEC West.

Combine that harsh reality with the arrival of Texas A&M, a possible resurgence from Arkansas, and perhaps the most steady period in Mississippi State’s program history, and it’s no stretch to say the middle of the SEC West isn’t exactly there for the taking either.

If Ole Miss’ program, as it stands now, would ever like a trip to Atlanta for something other than the Peach Bowl, then it’s likely now or never. Beyond 2015, expect a major overhaul to be needed in Oxford.

— Written by Eron Jenkings, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Jenkins is a public school teacher in Baton Rouge, has written for several other publications and is an SEC fanatic. Follow him on Twitter @EronJenkins.