How quickly things have changed in Oxford. Two years after downing No. 2-ranked Alabama, topping rival Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl and capping the season with a Sugar Bowl win over Oklahoma State, Ole Miss finds itself facing uncertainty about the future of its football program after the NCAA added eight new charges to a Notice of Allegations sent to the school in February.
The future of head coach Hugh Freeze also is in jeopardy as the Rebels begin to open spring practice on the heels of a 5-7 season that included a 55-20 season-ending loss to archrival Mississippi State. With a self-imposed, one-year bowl ban in response to the NCAA’s latest allegations, it’s safe to say there have better days in Oxford.
With a boatload of distractions, Ole Miss will trudge along as it opens spring ball.
5 Storylines to Watch in Ole Miss’ Spring Practice
1. Will Freeze withstand the latest allegations?
After concerns were raised about Ole Miss’ top-10 ranked recruiting class in 2013, Freeze invited those with suspicions to email the school’s compliance office — in hindsight, probably not the brightest move. When the smoke cleared, the school ended with 21 allegations and was slapped with the dreaded lack of institutional control charge. Ole Miss, which has hired two law firms, has 90 days to respond to the NCAA.
Despite being well loved in Oxford and around the state, some wonder how Freeze will withstand the controversy. Ole Miss, in a show of good faith toward the NCAA, could preemptively let him go, signaling its opposition to the recklessness and washing its hands of the matter.
2. Shea Patterson’s development
Patterson appeared in Ole Miss’s last three games of the season after the Rebels lost star quarterback Chad Kelly to injury. The then-true freshman threw for 338 yards and a touchdown and interception while rushing for 64 yards in his first start at Texas A&M. In his second start, he had 222 passing yards and two touchdowns against Vanderbilt. Patterson finished the season by throwing for 320 yards and two touchdowns and two interceptions while running for 73 yards in Ole Miss’ Egg Bowl loss.
Patterson finished the season with 880 passing yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions. He also added 169 yards on the ground. Patterson was the No. 1 quarterback prospect in the 2016 class after posting gaudy numbers in high school. He reaffirmed his commitment to the school after the latest round of NCAA allegations and is primed to have a stellar sophomore campaign.
3. What else will the NCAA investigations bring?
With all that’s going on in Oxford, it’s probably difficult for fans to remain upbeat about the upcoming season. But it could get worse. Yes, the school announced its self-imposed, one-year bowl ban, but the severity and number of allegations make it likely the NCAA will hand down a more severe punishment.
As past incidents have shown us, this could take the form of anything from an additional postseason ban to scholarship reductions, or a combination of the two. Only time will tell (and it could take a while to resolve), but it’s probably safe to say Ole Miss hasn’t seen the worst of the ordeal.
The impending verdict from the NCAA will loom large over Oxford.
4. How will new offensive coordinator Phil Longo adjust to the SEC?
The Rebels parted with co-offensive coordinator and QBs coach Dan Werner in December and replaced him with Longo, who previously was at FCS member Sam Houston State. In addition to sharing offensive coordinator duties with Matt Luke, Longo will coach quarterbacks.
Longo thrived at Sam Houston State, as the Bearkats averaged 547 yards per game last season. Throughout his three years at the school, his offenses ranked among the FCS’ best. In 2016, Sam Houston State was first in scoring offense (49.5 ppg), second in passing offense (368.3 ypg) and 37th in rushing offense (179.0 ypg), going 12-1 with the only loss coming in the quarterfinal round of the FCS playoffs against eventual national champion James Madison.
While Longo’s numbers are impressive, he’ll have to prove he can do the same against SEC defenses.
5. Wesley McGriff and the Ole Miss defense
Longo won’t be the only new assistant debuting in Oxford this fall. McGriff, who served as Ole Miss’ co-defensive coordinator in 2012 was hired after spending a season at Auburn in the same capacity. He also spent time as a defensive assistant with the New Orleans Saints.
After a shaky start to 2016, Auburn’s defense found its groove, and the unit ended the season in among the top five units in the SEC in total, scoring and rushing defense. Ole Miss in particular was abysmal against the run last year, finishing last in the conference and near the bottom of the FBS as a whole (120th out of 128 teams), surrendering 246.3 rushing yards per game. In contrast, Auburn gave up nearly half of that (132.8 ypg) to finish third in the SEC and 27th nationally. Tiger fans can take solace in knowing it can, and hopefully will, get better.
Pre-Spring Oulook for Ole Miss in the SEC
Despite all that has occurred this month, the Rebels now have to shift their focus to the field. Last season, Ole Miss suffered an insanely large number of injuries that began in the opener against Florida State and continued throughout a disappointing 5-7 campaign. It’s difficult to imagine Hugh Freeze’s team suffering the same misfortune two seasons in a row.
However, gone is record-setting quarterback Chad Kelly, along with All-American tight end Evan Engram. New co-offensive coordinator Phil Longo’s lack of FBS experience leaves questions about the offense, even with talented, dual-threat quarterback Shea Patterson, but the Rebels’ attack under Freeze has always been solid. Defensively, the addition of new defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff should net positive results for a unit that struggled mightily against the run in 2016.
Ole Miss should win more than six games in 2017, but unfortunately, no bowl trip will await it.
— Written by Elton Hayes, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. A sports reporter for The Meridian Star Newspaper, Hayes also has been an invited guest on “The Paul Finebaum Show.” Follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.