Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze has spent the last three seasons building the Rebels into one of the nation’s most talented teams. After a surprising 7-6 record in his first year in Oxford, Freeze landed the greatest recruiting class in school history, which included such supremely talented players as defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, tackle Laremy Tunsil, safety Tony Conner and tight end Evan Engram.
Because of their lofty professional prospects, it’s possible that each of those five players are playing their final seasons at Ole Miss as juniors, which means this is Freeze’s best shot for an SEC championship or possibly even a national title.
UT-Martin at Ole Miss
Kickoff: 12 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: SEC Network alternate
Three Things to Watch
1. Ole Miss Starting Quarterback Chad Kelly
Earlier this week, Hugh Freeze announced that quarterback Chad Kelly would get the start against UT Martin, but that Kelly’s top two competitors for the job - sophomores Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade – would also play and will still have an opportunity to wrestle the top spot on the depth chart away from Kelly. A junior in his first season in Oxford after beginning his college career at Clemson and spending 2014 at East Mississippi Community College, Kelly led EMCC to a 12-0 record and the NJCAA national championship last year. Expect him to shine against the Skyhawks and lock down the starting job for good by the SEC opener September 19 at Alabama.
2. Defensive Newcomers
By allowing an average of only 16 points per game, Ole Miss led the nation in scoring defense last season. However, four of the most important pieces of the unit - All-American defensive backs Senquez Golson and Cody Prewitt and linebackers D.T. Shackelford and Serderius Bryant – have exhausted their eligibility. The linebacker replacements are familiar faces, specifically former starting defensive end C.J. Johnson who is expected to start in the middle and Denzel Nkemdiche, who will see early action on the outside, though both are listed as co-starters with Terry Caldwell and DeMarquis Gates, respectively.
The Rebels should lean on talented JUCO transfers Tony Bridges and Tee Shepard at cornerback this season (though Shepard, who was a member of the 2014 recruiting class that missed last season with a foot injury, is listed as a co-starter with Kendarius Webster). Fellow transfer D.J. Jones will serve as one of the primary backups at defensive tackle and should be a major contributer in the D-Line rotation.
3. Improvement in the Running Game
Last season, Ole Miss ranked tenth in the SEC and No. 73 in the nation in rushing offense (155.5 yards per game), but there is reason to believe that will improve in 2015. The Rebels have the SEC’s most experienced offensive line (120 combined career starts) and got even better with true freshman left guard Javon Patterson earning a starting spot. The depth at the running back position is strong thanks to last year’s top two leading returning rushers Jaylen Watkins and Jordan Wilkins, plus Akeem Judd is a developing contributor. Finally, Kelly is a mobile quarterback and should be a bigger threat in the running game than departed starter Bo Wallace.
Ole Miss is a legitimate contender in the SEC West and UT Martin was 6-6 last season on the FCS level, and lost to Kentucky 59-13 and Mississippi State 45-16. This game is simply a warm-up for the Rebels that will allow Freeze and the coaching staff an opportunity to evaluate the team on the field heading into a Week 2 matchup with a much tougher Fresno State squad, and then the SEC opener at Alabama.
Prediction: Ole Miss 45, UT-Martin 3
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Allen's work on college football can also be found on SaturdayBlitz.com and FanSided.com. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.