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Why Ole Miss Will or Won’t Win the SEC West in 2015

Robert Nkemdiche

Robert Nkemdiche

After a 7-0 start that included a 23-17 upset victory over Alabama, Ole Miss became a legitimate contender not only in the SEC West, but also for a national title. Even with a loss to LSU, the Rebels were ranked No. 4 in the very first College Football Playoff rankings. Unfortunately for Ole Miss fans, the Rebels stumbled down the stretch and finished 9-4, including an embarrassing 42-3 loss to TCU in the Peach Bowl.

However, Ole Miss returns a lot of talent from last season’s squad, which coupled with a crop of talented newcomers, makes the Rebels a threat again in 2015. But will Ole Miss get over the hump and win the SEC West?

Related: Ole Miss 2015 Fall Camp Preview and Key Position Battles to Watch

Three Reasons Why Ole Miss Will Win the SEC West in 2015

1. High-End Talent

Head coach Hugh Freeze and his coaching staff have recruited extremely well since they came to Oxford. In fact, the Rebels have put together one of the most impressive collections of players in the nation — especially in terms of high-end, All-America-caliber, NFL Draft-level talent.

Four Ole Miss players are arguably the best players at their position in the SEC — possibly the entire nation: wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, tight end Evan Engram, left tackle Laremy Tunsil and defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche. Treadwell, Tunsil and Nkemdiche were all 5-star recruits in 2013 that have lived up to the hype in their first two seasons. Each is likely to be selected in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft, and safety Tony Conner, who also is a potential All-America candidate, could be as well.

Simply put, there are very few teams in the nation that have that much elite talent spread across the field. Alabama and Ohio State are close, but that’s it.

2. The Nation’s Best Defense

Ole Miss led the nation in scoring defense last season, allowing just 16 points per game. The unit, led by All-American defensive backs Senquez Golson and Cody Prewitt, also ranked in the nation’s top 25 in passing defense (No. 16, 192.1 ypg) and total defense (No. 13, 329.0 ypg). Golson and Prewitt graduated, but seven starters return and the replacements in the secondary could possibly be even better in 2015.

Tony Bridges, a 6-foot-2, 190-pound junior, was the nation’s top-ranked junior college defensive back in the 2015 recruiting class. He’ll step into Golson’s shoes at cornerback. Tee Shepard, a 6-foot-1 junior that was nearly as highly recruited as Bridges out of the JUCO ranks in 2014, is healthy after missing all of last season due to a toe injury. He’ll start at the other corner, replacing last year’s starter Mike Hilton, who moves to safety after leading the Rebels with 71 tackles in 2014. Hilton, who had three interceptions and seven pass breakups last year, isn’t guaranteed a spot in the starting lineup and will compete with Chief Brown, who also missed 2014, at strong safety. And that’s just the secondary.

Despite the loss of leaders Serderius Bryant and Deterrian Shackelford, the linebacker corps is stacked again with Denzel Nkemdiche back in the mix and former defensive end C.J. Johnson moving to middle linebacker. Up front, Issac Gross anchors the middle along with Robert Nkemdiche. Talented ends Victor Evans and Fadol Brown will rush the passer from the outside. Reserve Marquis Haynes was the team’s most successful pass rusher last season, leading the way with 7.5 sacks.

It’s an impressive group that has the talent and depth to be just as good as last year’s top-ranked unit. Maybe even better.

3. The Most Experienced Offensive Line in the SEC

Talent always trumps experience in the SEC, but there’s one position where experience matters more than any other — the offensive line. Luckily for Ole Miss, the Rebels have the most experienced O-line in the SEC.

Overall, Ole Miss linemen have made 120 career starts, which is the third most among all 128 FBS programs. Among SEC rivals, Missouri ranks second with 97 career starts to date. All five primary starters — four seniors and All-America candidate/future first-rounder Tunsil — return from last year’s unit, and backups gained starting experience when Tunsil and Aaron Morris missed time due to injury. Jovon Patterson, a 5-star recruit in the most recent class, will make the Rebels even deeper up front this season.

Unfortunately sophomore Rod Taylor, one of the top reserves and a candidate to unseat one of those four returning senior starters, reportedly suffered a shoulder injury while boxing. Boxing? Luckily, the injury is expected to be less serious than originally reported, and Taylor is expected to miss just a few weeks.

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Three Reasons Why Ole Miss Won’t Win the SEC West in 2015

1. Quarterback Uncertainty

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It’s no longer a secret that teams don’t need an experienced signal-caller to compete for conference championships and national titles. Jameis Winston won it all at Florida State as a redshirt freshman in 2013, and took home the Heisman Trophy in the process. Last year, first-year starter J.T. Barrett and third-stringer Cardale Jones helped Ohio State claim the first national championship in the College Football Playoff era. Plus, quarterbacks like TCU’s Trevone Boykin and USC’s Cody Kessler had a huge impact in their first season atop the depth chart.

But, most coaches would rather have a quarterback that’s battle-tested and is familiar with the system heading into the season. That’s not an option this year for Ole Miss because career total offense leader Bo Wallace has exhausted his eligibility.

Therefore, Freeze must turn the keys of the offense over to either former Clemson and JUCO QB Chad Kelly or returning sophomores Ryan Buchanan or DeVante Kincade. Buchanan had the edge in the competition coming out of spring practice, but few outside the Ole Miss program expect him to win the job this fall.

The best bet is Kelly, who led East Mississippi Community College to the NJCAA national championship in 2014 while racking up 3,906 passing yards and 446 rushing yards. That is, if he can stay out of trouble, which has been an issue in the past.

Related: College Football's Top 20 Quarterback Battles to Watch in Fall Practice

2. Rough Road in the SEC

Every SEC West team faces the same problem — they have to play the other six members of the division, plus two more tough opponents from the SEC East. Ole Miss has the benefit of Vanderbilt being its annual cross-division rival, but every other conference game could be either a win or a loss.

Ole Miss opens SEC play on the road against Alabama, and the Crimson Tide will be out to avenge last season’s upset in Oxford. After hosting the Commodores, Ole Miss must travel to The Swamp to play a talented, albeit rebuilding Florida team. It’s a game the Rebels should win, but winning is never easy in Gainesville.

After a couple of non-conference dates (including a short, tricky trip to Memphis), Ole Miss finishes the season with five straight SEC West showdowns – two of which are road games against league favorite Auburn and archrival Mississippi State.

It’s a similar slate of games to the stretch last season in which Ole Miss lost three SEC contests in a row, which knocked them out of the race in the SEC West.

3. Lack of a Consistent Running Game

The Rebels have a solid, experienced offensive line and a lot of questions at quarterback, which means they would like to be able to rely on the running game early and often in 2015 – especially since the team’s top two returning rushers are back.

However, Ole Miss struggled mightily running the football last season. The Rebels averaged just 155.5 yards on the ground in 2014, which ranked tenth in the SEC, and was inflated by the 402 yards the team rolled up on the ground against FCS opponent Presbyterian. In SEC play, Ole Miss gained just 139 rushing yards per contest, averaging 3.9 yards per carry.

Jaylen Walton led the squad with 586 yards on 106 carries (5.5 ypc) and five touchdowns. Jordan Wilkins followed with 361 yards and a TD on just 52 carries, which gave him an impressive 6.9 yards per carry average. Both Walton and Wilkins showed flashes of big-play ability – but can they pick up the slack needed to take pressure off of a new starting quarterback?

At 5-foot-8 and 166 pounds, Walton doesn’t fit the profile of a typical every-down back, so expect the 209-pound Wilkins to see his role increase as a sophomore. Junior Akeem Judd also should factor in after redshirting last season, and freshman Eric Swinney has exciting potential. A running back by committee may be in the works.

Final Verdict

There is a lot for Ole Miss fans to be excited about heading into the 2015 season. Despite the sour taste left in their mouths by the Peach Bowl humiliation, the Rebels have momentum because they can still hang their hats on beating Alabama and Mississippi State — both of whom spent time as the nation’s No. 1 team. Plus, nine wins and a New Year’s Six bowl game are great achievements for Freeze in only his third year in Oxford.

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But, in many ways, the season was still disappointing. After reaching the No. 3 spot in the AP Poll and No. 4 in the College Football Playoff rankings, Ole Miss fans were dreaming of a conference title and national championship in 2014. Despite key losses on both offense and defense, the 2015 Rebels have the talent and experience to avenge last year’s shortcomings. But will they?

If Chad Kelly (or Ryan Buchanan or DeVante Kincade) takes control of the offense with the help of a solid offensive line and one of the SEC’s deepest groups of playmaking receivers, Ole Miss will score lots of points. With one of the nation’s best defenses, points will be tough to come by for the opposition. However, the tough road trips and brutal SEC West schedule may be too much.

Not many teams can survive playing at Bryant-Denny, at The Swamp, at Jordan-Hare and in Starkville, where Hugh Freeze has yet to win and Ole Miss hasn’t beaten the Bulldogs since 2003. If Ole Miss splits those road games – even if the Rebels run the table at home – it won’t be enough to make it to the SEC Championship Game.

Alabama or Auburn probably won’t lose three league games, and Texas A&M, Arkansas and LSU are all better than they were last year (and don’t forget LSU and Arkansas beat the Rebels in 2014). As it looks right now, Ole Miss can afford only one conference loss to have any shot at making it to Atlanta – and that just isn’t likely to happen.

— 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.