During the first month of the 2015 season, Ole Miss was on top of the college football world. Back-to-back 70-plus point performances to open the year only set the stage for going into Tuscaloosa and pulling off a big upset of Alabama for the second straight year. That victory, in many ways, gave the Rebels the keys to the College Football Playoff at the time and had many believing that the all-star recruiting classes head coach Hugh Freeze had hauled in were finally realizing their potential.
But such high hopes and big wins don’t mean much in the weekly grind that every season brings. A road loss to a resurgent Florida was a setback but not a killer to making the final four. Losses to Memphis and Arkansas did however, and turned a season that was potentially historic into just another great one for the Rebels. After throttling Oklahoma State in the Sugar Bowl and seeing a remarkable exodus from Oxford to the NFL in the offseason, the expectations remain high for the program but everybody seems to be wondering if Freeze and company can keep things rolling — especially in light of a difficult few months dealing with NCAA issues.
There are plenty of reasons to think Ole Miss can push past all that and remain in the running to win the SEC West and make another run at the Playoff though, led by record-setting quarterback Chad Kelly. Can the Rebels reach the final four that it looked like they were destined to early last season? Here are three reasons why Ole Miss will make the Playoff... and three reasons why they won’t.
Three Reasons Why Ole Miss Will Make the College Football Playoff
1. Chad Kelly is back behind center
It was extremely telling at SEC Media Days in July that only three of the league’s 14 teams brought a quarterback — and one hasn’t even started for them (Trevor Knight played at Oklahoma last year before moving to Texas A&M). Of those three, the player who was by far the most accomplished was Ole Miss’ signal-caller. After throwing for more than 4,000 yards and 31 touchdowns, it’s easy to say that Kelly enters 2016 as the best quarterback in the SEC and he might be the best East of the Mississippi not named Deshaun Watson. Having him leading the team’s up-tempo offense is easily the biggest reason to think this could be another big year in Oxford.
2. The defense still has plenty of talent
Former No. 1 overall recruit Robert Nkemdiche has traded his Ole Miss blue and red for the red and black of the Arizona Cardinals. Tackling machine Mike Hilton also is no longer on campus after several seasons of quality play in the secondary. Former captain C.J. Johnson is among the others moving on after being a mainstay on the “Landshark” defense that was among the best units in the country the past few years. Despite all those losses, there’s still plenty of talent left for defensive coordinator Dave Wommack to work with. D.J. Jones and Tony Conner are two of the biggest names but don’t be surprised to see quality transfers like Rommel Mageo to help boost a unit that should still be highly regarded in the SEC.
3. They will use the NCAA scandal as a rallying point
It’s been a tumultuous offseason for just about everybody associated with the Ole Miss program and the biggest reason why centers around the 13 allegations leveled against the school by the NCAA and the subsequent defending of what happened by Freeze and his staffers. Add in further damage caused by the Laremy Tunsil NFL Draft night scandal and it’s pretty clear why the compliance office has been working overtime in Oxford. With all the negative headlines in recent months, you would be forgiven for thinking that some players may be spending too much time worrying about the future of Ole Miss football. To the contrary however, the pessimistic tone set by those outside the program could actually serve as a rallying cry for those inside the walls of the football facilities. Like USC back in 2011, don’t be surprised if all the attacks force the players to take an “us-vs-the-world” mentality that pays off on the field and in the win cloumn.
Three Reasons Why Ole Miss Will Not Make the College Football Playoff
1. There’s just too much star power to replace
Five Ole Miss players were taken in the 2016 NFL Draft, including an impressive three going in the first round. Those weren’t just quality players either; they were superstars for the Rebels who started multiple seasons. One just can’t replace a Laquon Treadwell overnight and expect everything to be ok no matter how much depth you have or how talented the recruiting class coming in is. It would be one thing to have other experienced players to help pick up the slack coming back too but Ole Miss returns the fewest number of starters (10 total, 5 on each side of the ball) in the entire SEC to further complicate things for the coaching staff.
2. The schedule is brutal
Not only does Ole Miss have to contend with a rough and tumble SEC West slate, but its schedule overall is among the toughest in the country and easily one of the most brutal first months of the season anywhere. In the opener the Rebels will have to contend with a team many think can make the College Football Playoff in Florida State and then have just two weeks after that to prepare for a back-to-back offering of division favorite Alabama and an always-talented Georgia. While both of those games are at home, trips to Arkansas, LSU and Texas A&M could prove rocky at best and anything can happen in the Egg Bowl to end the year. If the team winds up in the top 10 of the polls come January, Freeze and company certainly will have earned it.
3. Offensive line is a big, big question mark
Tunsil’s NFL Draft night gas mask snafu is the first thing people now think about regarding the former Ole Miss left tackle but that really glosses over just how good the No. 13 overall pick was protecting the blind side of Rebels quarterbacks. He certainly lived up to his lofty recruiting ranking early in his college career and was a big part in limiting the deep stable of pass rushers you see on a weekly basis in the SEC. While his absence will almost certainly be felt, the offensive line is an even bigger mystery for the team since all five players that started the bowl game are gone. There are players who have experience so it’s not a totally green unit coming back for 2016 but it says plenty about the situation Freeze is in that he will likely be protecting Kelly with either a true freshman (five-star signee Greg Little) or a converted quarterback/tight end (Jeremy Liggins).
Expectations at Ole Miss are a tricky thing for anybody who has followed the program or knows how quickly a coach can get run out of town at even the faintest signs of slipping. After an up-and-down-and-then-up year in 2015, that puts a lot of pressure on Hugh Freeze to deliver yet another quality campaign despite losing a host of talent and having to deal with an ongoing NCAA scandal. The team has recruited at a high level to get to the point where there won’t be big dips in on-field performance and that’s what makes the team such a fascinating one to follow given all of the storylines.
Ole Miss may not win the SEC West in 2016 but even it doesn’t, the Rebels should play a role in which team does given their amount of talent and depth on the roster. Another top-10 finish certainly isn’t out of the question but the team will have to battle through tests early and often if it is to wind up in a New Year’s Six bowl game for the third straight season. Saying the Rebels will make the Playoff might be a bit much but the door isn’t shut on them doing just that in what should be a wild and interesting year for Freeze and his football team.
Athlon’s Projected Final Ranking: 10
Athlon’s Projected Final Record: 9-3
Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: 8.5
5 Dimes Projected Over/Under Odds: 8
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.