Hugh Freeze's teams at Ole Miss get better by one game every year. In his first season as head coach in 2012, the Rebels went 7-6. Then, in 2013, they went 8-5, then 9-4, then 10-3 last season.
If you go by this method of consistent improvement, it would be reasonable to think Ole Miss could go 11-2 in 2016. It is possible. The roster is loaded, but will it be good enough to fend off Alabama and LSU? What about Arkansas, a team that has beaten the Rebels two years in a row?
It all starts in the spring for Ole Miss. Here are a few storylines to keep an eye on as the Rebels begin spring practice.
5 Storylines to Watch in Ole Miss Spring Practice
1. Replacing stars on defense
The 2013 recruiting class at Ole Miss, which I have been praising for three years, was awesome. Before the Rebels can find their identity as a defense in 2016, they will have to find players to replace defensive linemen Robert Nkemdiche and Channing Ward, linebacker C.J. Johnson, and defensive backs Mike Hilton and Trae Elston.
Luckily for Ole Miss, there are plenty of guys ready to break out on defense. The Rebels' recruiting classes from 2014-16 have all been top-15 classes, according to 247Sports composite rankings. So, although the 2013 class was outstanding, there is no shortage of talent waiting in the wings. There is plenty of work to do on the defensive line, but freshman defensive tackle Benito Jones could make an immediate impact. Also, the return of Breeland Speaks and Marquis Haynes is a good sign. Linebacker is a concern with the loss of Johnson, but Oregon State leading tackler Rommel Mageo is transferring to Oxford and will be able to play this fall. The secondary is probably the biggest area of concern for the Rebels. Tony Conner is recovering from a knee injury, but when healthy, he will be an important player in the back end. C.J. Hampton also is expected to be a key contributor in the secondary.
2. Finding new playmakers on offense
Of course, it isn't just defensive players Ole Miss will be missing. Laquon Treadwell, who was nearly uncoverable last season, is off to the NFL. Also, star left tackle Laremy Tunsil figures to hear his name called fairly early in the first round of the upcoming draft. Running back Jaylen Walton will no longer be on the roster either.
Just like on defense, the Rebels are not short of top-tier SEC players to fill in. It will be tough to replace someone like Treadwell, but wide receivers Quincy Adeboyejo and Damore'ea Stringfellow, and tight end Evan Engram should provide some relief in the passing game. Those three players combined for more than 1,500 yards receiving last season. The offensive line is without question, the biggest area of concern on offense. All five starters from the Sugar Bowl will have to be replaced. Javon Patterson, who started a few games last season, is coming back, but other than that, it's kind of up in the air. Incoming five-star freshman tackle Greg Little will probably be needed early, but isn’t scheduled to arrive on campus until the summer. It should be fun to keep an eye on the physicality of the linemen in spring drills with the absence of veterans. Ole Miss also must find production at running back, which has been the case in recent years.
3. Chad Kelly is back
One position on offense that will have stability is quarterback. That's kind of important. Kelly led the SEC last year with more than 4,000 passing yards and 31 touchdowns. He is a real difference-maker in a league short on quality passing quarterbacks. He also has been great on the big stage. He had more than 340 yards and three touchdowns in the big upset of Alabama in Tuscaloosa last year. Even in a late-season loss to Arkansas Kelly did his part with nearly 500 yards of total offense.
Kelly's return is crucial for the development of new receivers and linemen. The returning crop of receivers is familiar with him, so they should be able to get timing down fairly easily in the spring. Kelly is at his best when throwing the ball, but he also is able to escape the pocket. He collected 500 yards on the ground last season, good for second on the team, and picked up 10 touchdowns. This will help a young offensive line trying to figure out how to block together. In situations where a sack may be inevitable for most quarterbacks, Kelly can avoid it. Kelly’s experience and playmaking ability also should help the young offensive line gain confidence. If Kelly improves his mechanics in the spring, Ole Miss will be unstoppable through the air once again.
4. Getting better on special teams
The Rebels have to work on special teams in the spring. Needless to say, there is plenty of room for improvement. Last year, Ole Miss ranked 12th in the SEC in kickoff return yardage and 13th in gross punting yards. The only area on special teams where Ole Miss was decent was in the kicking game, where it ranked sixth in the conference. Fortunately, kicker Gary Wunderlich is back after hitting 19 of his 25 field goals last year. But the Rebels must improve in other areas. Any coach will tell you that special teams can be the difference in any game.
Punting and kick returns have to get on the same level the offense and defense have been at over the last couple years, because Ole Miss will need to win the field position battle early in the season. If you can punt, you put your defense in good position. If you can return kicks well, you put your offense in good position. For a team that is going to be rebuilding in key areas, this will be essential. The other units should be able to improve with the depth Ole Miss has. There are plenty of fierce, young players on the team. There should be no excuse for bad special teams.
5. Working on endurance
Ole Miss should still be one of the SEC's deepest teams, despite the loss of top talent to the NFL. But over the past two seasons, the Rebels have not been able to close the deal down the stretch. Arkansas has had their number under Bret Bielema in November. But after beating Alabama in 2014, the Rebels also lost consecutive games to Auburn and LSU. Last season, they lost to Memphis. While that wasn't a conference game, it didn't help team morale. If you beat Alabama, you should be in Atlanta.
It comes down to endurance. A lot of teams are banged up and hobbling in November, but the tough ones get through it and win championships. And championships are not won in December and January. They are won in the weight room in the offseason, in spring ball, and in August. You can bet Freeze and his staff will test the toughness of this team in conditioning drills this spring.
Pre-Spring Ole Miss Outlook in the SEC
The SEC West should be just as brutal as ever this fall. Alabama, as always, will replenish its talent. LSU has arguably its best roster since 2011, and Texas A&M should be better on defense in John Chavis' second year. Arkansas has proven to be a tough out in November, but the Hogs' offense has a long way to go. Who knows what Auburn and Mississippi State will do?
Ole Miss is sort of the wild card in the West. The Rebels will be one of the most talented teams in the SEC outside of Tuscaloosa, Baton Rouge, and maybe Knoxville. Speaking of Knoxville, remember in 1998 when the Volunteers won a national championship despite sending a boatload of talent, including Peyton Manning, to the NFL the year before? Ole Miss could be in that type of situation, flying under the radar a bit. The schedule sets up pretty well with the Rebels getting Alabama and Georgia at home. An early-season bout with Florida State also could provide an early measuring stick. If this team can beat Alabama again in Oxford, then close it out down the stretch, it could be a College Football Playoff contender. Don't sleep on Ole Miss.