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Ranking the Toughest Games on Ole Miss' College Football Schedule in 2017

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Ole Miss’ outlook for the upcoming college football season changed dramatically following former head coach Hugh Freeze’s sudden resignation on July 20 amid allegations he used his work-issued phone to call a Florida-based escort service. Under Freeze, the Rebels had gone 39-25 in five seasons, including two wins over Alabama, a Sugar Bowl victory and the school's first top-10 finish in four decades.

Freeze also leaves Oxford in the midst of an ongoing NCAA investigation, as college athletics' governing body leveled two separate notices of allegations on Freeze and Ole Miss, including a lack of institutional control charge. Although Freeze is no longer employed by Ole Miss, the Rebels are hardly in the clear.

In Freeze’s place, offensive coordinator/ offensive line coach Matt Luke has been named interim head coach. Luke is an Ole Miss alumnus who joined Freeze’s staff when he took over the Rebels following the 2011 season.

The Rebels not only enter the 2017 season under the cloud of the looming NCAA decision, they also do so with a new head coach. Here is how the Rebels’ schedule stacks up this season.

12. Sept. 9 vs. UT Martin

The Skyhawks from the FCS ranks went 7-5 overall last season, finishing second in the Ohio Valley Conference. SEC > Ohio Valley Conference, no offense, but Ole Miss needs all the easy wins it can get.

11. Nov. 11 vs. Louisiana

This year marks the sixth consecutive year the Ragin’ Cajuns have played an SEC opponent. These two teams last met in 2014, a 56-15 Ole Miss victory. Louisiana will lean on a seasoned defense to carry its green offense. The Rebels will get a good test but should notch the W at home.

10. Sept. 2 vs. South Alabama

Ole Miss fans gave Mississippi State a lot of grief after the Bulldogs were defeated by South Alabama last year. The Rebels could find themselves in the same position if they look past the Jaguars. Ole Miss and sophomore quarterback Shea Patterson will tussle against a South Alabama defense that returns six starters from a unit that ranked ninth nationally against the pass (174.6 ypg) last year.

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9. Sept. 16 at California

After going 3-9 last year, Cal hired head coach Justin Wilcox to revive the program. With four returning starters on offense, Wilcox won’t have much to work with. Six starters return on defense, but the unit ranked no higher near the bottom of FBS teams in both yards and points allowed per game. Traveling to the West Coast could affect Ole Miss’ start, but the Rebels shouldn’t have too much of a problem dispatching Cal.

8. Oct. 14 vs. Vanderbilt

Vanderbilt running back Ralph Webb dashed for 123 yards and three scores last year as the Commodores tallied 481 yards of total offense in their 38-17 win against Ole Miss. Webb, along with seven other offensive starters, returns to go along with seven back on defense. Ole Miss draws Vanderbilt after a three-game road trip that includes stops in California and games at Alabama and Auburn – ouch.

7. Nov. 4 at Kentucky

Ole Miss last played Kentucky in 2011, and the Wildcats walked away with a 30-13 win. Eight returning starters on both offense and defense will prove a formidable challenge against a largely inexperienced Ole Miss squad. Considering the Rebels gave up more than 300 rushing yards to four different SEC opponents last year, Kentucky’s Benny Snell Jr. – who ran for 1,091 yards as a freshman — is probably salivating at this opportunity.

6. Oct. 28 vs. Arkansas

The Razorbacks pulled out a four-point win in Fayetteville last year thanks to a go-ahead touchdown pass with a little more than two minutes remaining in the game. Arkansas’ defense has been its Achilles heel and has a new look (from a 4-3 to 3-4) and new coordinator. This should be another competitive game between evenly matched teams.

5. Nov. 23 at Mississippi State

The Egg Bowl this year might as well double as Ole Miss' bowl game, as the school imposed a postseason in hopes of currying favor with the NCAA. Nick Fitzgerald accumulated 367 yards of total offense, and the Bulldogs’ defense shut out the Rebels in the second half as Mississippi State cruised to a 55-20 win. The Bulldogs are looking for their first winning streak over their archrivals since 2009-11.

4. Nov. 19 vs. Texas A&M

A week after the Aggies lost to Mississippi State last year, the Rebels did their part to contribute to a Magnolia State sweep. Patterson made his debut on the road against Texas A&M and led Ole Miss to 29-28 victory behind 338 passing yards and two touchdowns. The second to last game in the regular season for both teams, it’s possible that the Aggies’ Kevin Sumlin could be coaching for his job, if he still has one.

3. Oct. 21 vs. LSU

LSU head coach Ed Orgeron returns to Oxford. Orgeron, who went 10-25 overall and 3-21 in SEC play in three years at Ole Miss, brings a loaded Tigers team into Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Ole Miss was horrendous against the run at times last season, including surrendering 284 yards and three touchdowns on just 16 carries to Leonard Fournette in last season’s 38-21 loss at LSU. Derrius Guice takes over as lead running back for the Tigers and he could help make his case as a Heisman Trophy contender if he enjoys similar success in Oxford.

2. Oct. 7 at Auburn

Ole Miss travels to Auburn a week after a road trip to Tuscaloosa, which doesn't exactly bode well for the Rebels. If the Tigers can remain healthy – unlike last season – a win against Ole Miss will put them in a good position as they enter the heart of their SEC West schedule.

1. Sept. 30 at Alabama

Ole Miss held a 21-3 lead over the Crimson Tide in the second quarter of their game last season before 'Bama showed why it's 'Bama. Unfortunately for Rebels fans, key players from last year's team such as quarterback Chad Kelly and tight end Evan Engram have departed for the NFL. Ole Miss lacks the experience and playmakers to pose a similar challenge to the Tide this year. This could get ugly quickly.

— 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.