Alabama is the perennial favorite, once again, to win the SEC West. It gets old hearing that every year, but the Crimson Tide have earned it. Then there's LSU, a team that couldn't possibly be more loaded headed into the fall. Call the Tigers this year's "trendy" pick if you will.
So what about Ole Miss? The Rebels seem to have fallen off everyone's radar since most of their top players have either graduated or moved on to the NFL. After all, Ole Miss does return only nine starters from last year's squad. But I'm here to tell you there's reason to hope in Oxford. Not only are the Rebels ranked No. 10 in Athlon Sports’ preseason Top 25, they could end up atop arguably the toughest division in college football when all is said and done. Here are five reasons Ole Miss can win the SEC West in 2016.
1. Quarterback Play
It all starts with the quarterback and there isn't a team in the SEC with a better outlook at that position than Ole Miss. Despite losing Laremy Tunsil and Laquon Treadwell to the NFL, the Rebels will still bring back their most dynamic offensive playmaker. Chad Kelly was the Sugar Bowl MVP and threw for a whopping 4,042 yards and 31 touchdowns over the course of the 2015 season. Kelly also was second on the team in rushing, piling up 500 yards on the ground. His return this fall should make it a bit easier for new players on the offense to ease into position. Ole Miss fans should be joyous as well, because an elite quarterback can be a total difference-maker in the college game.
2. Rebels Have Alabama's Number
In order to win the SEC West, a team must first knock off Alabama. That has pretty much become a prerequisite at this point. Ole Miss has done just that in the past two seasons. In fact, the guy mentioned above looked like an NFL quarterback in last year's 43-37 win for the Rebels, throwing for more than 340 yards and three touchdowns. The only problem is the Rebels have been unable to seal the deal down the stretch after beating the Tide the last two years. Ole Miss is as talented as any team in the SEC, but needs to figure out how to have that same intensity week to week. Hey, at least the Rebels have Nick Saban figured out... for now.
3. Accumulated Depth
When trying to win a division title, it doesn't hurt to have a stockpile of players who are already familiar with the system. Under head coach Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss has been able to reach new heights in recruiting. As a result, the Rebels have a deep roster, even with the superb 2013 class now headed off to the NFL. The 2014-16 recruiting classes for Ole Miss finished 15th, 17th, and 6th, respectively, in 247 Sports' Composite Team Rankings. Plus, Freeze and his staff have proven their ability to develop those players. Because the talent level hasn't fallen off much, there is good reason to believe Ole Miss still has plenty of guys capable of helping the team get to Atlanta.
Since Freeze's first season in Oxford back in 2012, a lot of the talk has been centered on Ole Miss' high-powered offenses. While it has been fun to watch, it also is important to remember that defense has won the Rebels a ton of games. It's a bit scary to think that Ole Miss is only bringing back nine starters on the entire team this fall, but most of those guys coming back are defenders. Talented defensive back Tony Conner returns from injury to help out a young secondary. Also, defensive end Marquis Haynes is back to anchor the defensive line. Even though some of the familiar faces are gone, there is still reason to be excited about the potential on the defensive side of the ball.
5. Manageable Schedule
First off, let's be clear. This schedule isn't easy. But it's manageable, meaning it really does set up well for being one of the most difficult slates in the nation. And it's not like Ole Miss is at a disadvantage in trying to win the West, since every other team in the division plays basically the same opponents. The Rebels kick off SEC play against Alabama, but luckily they get FCS member Wofford the week before. It's nice not having Alabama at the end of a gauntlet. Ole Miss will face a difficult test against Georgia the next week. But before going on the road in SEC play at Arkansas and LSU, the Rebels get a bye week to recover from the first half of the schedule. After that, it shouldn't be too bad. The toughest game in November is at Texas A&M and Ole Miss should be able to tune up for that one against Georgia Southern.