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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 93: Mississippi

The healing can begin. But first, major surgery. Scalpel: excise the nasty taste of a program record for futility in SEC play — 14 straight losses and counting. Suction: rebuild the roster, beginning with those gone, those who returned and those willing to do what it takes to return Mississippi to competitiveness in an SEC West that’s nothing if not unkind to those unable to maintain a heavy foot on the gas pedal. Calipers: gauge not only where you stand today but where you want to be tomorrow, when the Rebels stand a better chance of reclaiming a permanent spot in postseason play. Suture: but not until the wound has been cleared of any potentially infectious debris. Rehabilitation: hit the weights, work late into the night, study your film, send out scholarship offers to any quick, strong, agile and hostile recruit with two arms and two legs. Ready? Send the Rebels up to the Operating Room. Dr. Hugh Freeze will do the honors.

Conference
SEC, West

Location
Oxford, Miss.

Nickname
Rebels

Returning starters
13 (7 offense, 6 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 65

2011 record
(2-10, 0-8)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 109

2012 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    Cent. Arkansas
  • Sept. 8
    UTEP
  • Sept. 15
    Texas
  • Sept. 22
    at Tulane
  • Sept. 29
    at Alabama
  • Oct. 6
    Texas A&M
  • Oct. 13
    Auburn
  • Oct. 27
    at Arkansas
  • Nov. 3
    at Georgia
  • Nov. 10
    Vanderbilt
  • Nov. 17
    at L.S.U.
  • Nov. 24
    Mississippi St.

Last year’s prediction

What’s a little frightening is that this season’s prospects look far less rosy than they did at this point a year ago. There’s this schedule — oh, this schedule — which again leaves little to no time for these Rebels to rise up for air. So there’s the bad news. The good news? It may just be a matter of pride for Ole Miss: take something from last year’s embarrassment and turn it into motivation to turn things around. I think the Rebels will do that, but it will only take this team so far. The year hinges on how Ole Miss fares against the roughly-equal-to-lesser teams on the schedule: Southern Illinois, Vanderbilt, Fresno State, Auburn, Kentucky and Louisiana Tech. Ole Miss goes bowling if it wins five of those six. Go 4-2 and it will be slightly more difficult. I think Nutt pulls out a bowl bid, but it’s going to be close: 6-6 is a safe prediction, but I doubt Ole Miss can do better than 7-5.

2011 recap

In a nutshell The less said the better. Two wins, one over an F.C.S. opponent, the second against a four-win team from the WAC. A 20-point loss to another team from the WAC. A 23-point loss to Vanderbilt, the Rebels’ fourth in five tries against the Commodores. Only one SEC loss by less than 14 points; overall, an average margin of defeat of 24.9 points per game in conference play. The worst defense in the SEC and the second-worst offense. Was this the worst team in program history? You could go there. Let’s turn the page.

High point Maybe an optimistic fan could have deluded his- or herself into imagining that the Rebels were close to turning the corner on Oct. 22, when Ole Miss gave Arkansas all it could handle in a 29-24 loss. While the defeat dropped Ole Miss to 2-5, the Rebels could have closed strong — the team was bad to this point, but not that bad. The worst was yet to come.

Low point An unsteady start and a painfully sloppy finish. The season opened poorly, with the Rebels handing B.Y.U. a 14-13 win, and after a win over Southern Illinois took on a decidedly negative turn: Vanderbilt 30, Rebels 7. After beating Fresno State to open October and hanging tight with Arkansas two weeks later, the Rebels lost the final five games of the season by a combined score of 181-49. Included in those defeats were a 27-7 home loss to Louisiana Tech and another loss in the Egg Bowl.

Tidbit Ole Miss has now lost three straight to Mississippi State for only the second time in the modern era of college football. With another loss in 2012, the Rebels would match the four-game losing streak from 1939-42 as the program’s longest in the series since 1936. Last season’s 28-point loss was the largest in the series’ history since 1919, when the Rebels suffered a 33-0 defeat. In comparison, Ole Miss has wins of 45 and 31 points just since 2003.

Tidbit (dress code edition) Ole Miss has never needed to define how exactly fans should dress for home games. If you’re of a certain age — a student, or a recent graduate, or simply a well-dressed gadabout — just follow the crowd: khakis, dress shirt, sandals, blue or red tie and sunglasses. For this coming season, however, the university is telling fans how to dress for games at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Or asking politely, at least. Ole Miss has asked fans to wear white for the season opener against Central Arkansas; red for UTEP, Texas and Auburn; and navy for Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State. Adjust your Croakies accordingly.

Former players in the N.F.L.

24 RB Brandon Bolden (New England Patriots), DE Wayne Dorsey (Oakland), CB Marshay Green (Arizona), RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis (Cincinnati), DE Greg Hardy (Carolina), OG Darryl Harris (Kansas City), DT Peria Jerry (Atlanta), OG John Jerry (Miami), S Kendrick Lewis (Kansas City), QB Eli Manning (New York Giants), OT Bobby Massie (Arizona), WR Dexter McCluster (Kansas City), OT Michael Oher (Baltimore), LB Ashlee Palmer (Detroit), OT Jermey Parnell (Dallas), NT Jerrell Powe (Kansas City), S Jamarca Sanford (Minnesota), OT Bradley Sowell (Tampa Bay), C Chris Spencer (Chicago), WR Michael Spurlock (San Diego), DE Emmanuel Stephens (Cleveland), LB Patrick Trahan (Chicago), CB Cassius Vaughn (Indianapolis), LB Patrick Willis (San Francisco).

Arbitrary top five list

First-year coaches with chance for immediate success
1. Urban Meyer, Ohio State.
2. Kyle Flood, Rutgers.
3. Ellis Johnson, Southern Mississippi.
4. Gus Malzahn, Arkansas State.
5. Matt Campbell, Toledo.

Coaching

Hugh Freeze (Southern Mississippi ’92), entering his first season. Freeze spent the last two seasons at Arkansas State, first as offensive coordinator before being promoted to head coach heading into the 2011 season. Last fall, Freeze led A.S.U. to 10 wins, a program-high on the F.B.S. level. As coordinator, Freeze helped the Red Wolves set several new school records. Most notably, he had an impact on the passing game: A.S.U. set new high-water marks in attempts (438), completions (266), completion percentage (60.7), passing yards (3,057) and passing scores (23) in 2010, while also setting a new program-high in first downs (262). So the impact Freeze was immediate; I thought it would take him a year to get things rolling. Prior to moving back to the F.B.S. Freeze spent two years at Lambuth University, part of the N.A.I.A., where he compiled a two-year mark of 20-5. As with the Red Wolves, Freeze led the offense to several new program records. His initial taste of big-time football came at Mississippi (2005-7), where he spent three seasons under Ed Orgeron, first as an assistant in the football offices before taking on the tight ends in 2006 and the receivers in 2007. He was the interim coach for a short time after Orgeron was dismissed, and was not part of Houston Nutt’s plans once he came aboard from Arkansas. Most notably – thanks to the book detailing Michael Oher’s recruitment – Freeze was featured in the book “The Blind Side,” where he first drew attention for his work as a high school coach in Tennessee. You get the drift here with Freeze: not overly experienced on the college ranks but talented as an offensive coach and a recruiter, Freeze was a perfect fit at Arkansas State. The same can be said of Mississippi, which needed a jolt of energy and enthusiasm. Freeze is just what the doctor ordered. Perhaps he was a no-brainer hire; that doesn’t make his selection any less inspired. Freeze is a star.

Players to watch

Don’t blame the system when this offense sputters through SEC play. The system works; it’s a familiarity with its intricacies that’s missing. Beyond that, Ole Miss also has a personnel issue: the Rebels lack explosiveness, experience and depth, three quantities in high demand in this rough-and-tumble SEC. No, this offense won’t hit the ground running in Freeze’s first season. But the offense will get better as the year goes on, even — gasp — finding something resembling a groove prior to the season-ending Egg Bowl, which would be outstanding for Ole Miss. There’s no such thing as too late, as long as the pistons begin firing before Mississippi State comes to town.

When it comes to this offense, the majority of attention has been paid to the quarterback position, where one holdover and a JUCO transfer are jostling for the starting role. This is a key competition. But the Rebels’ issues stray beyond simply quarterback to both the offensive line and the receiver corps; in addition, an unhealthy passing game and a reworked offensive front could mean trouble in the backfield, where Ole Miss needs to replace an all-SEC running back in Brandon Bolden — the most dangerous piece of last year’s woeful offensive attack.

The biggest question at running back revolves around junior Jeff Scott (529 yards, 6 scores), last year’s leading rusher. At 5’7 and 175 pounds, can Scott be an every-down back in the SEC? You wouldn’t think so, but Scott did average 12.3 carries per game over his nine starts before missing the final two games of last season following a violation of team rules. What Ole Miss needs, even with this offense moving more towards the pass, is another two or three backs to help Scott carry the load. Senior Devin Thomas (73 yards) might be a nice option, thanks to his bigger size and running style; he made one start last fall, against Alabama, and left the spring listed as Scott’s backup. Thomas might be keeping this reserve spot warm for incoming freshman I’Tavius Mathers, one of the jewels of Freeze’s first recruiting class. This offense would like to run on an even split, with the run featured in equal measure to the pass, so there are carries available for backs outside of Scott.

Ole Miss returns one promising sophomore receiver in Donte Moncrief (31 receptions for 454 yards and 4 scores) but recently lost a second, Nick Brassell, to academics. Brassell’s issues in the classroom will lead to a promotion for sophomore Collins Moore, who is now slated to join Moncrief and Ja-Mes Logan (20 catches for 274 yards) in the starting lineup. This is not a group that will strike fear into the hearts of defensive backs across the SEC, even if Moncrief has all-conference potential — he did post one of the finest freshman seasons by a receiver in school history, after all. One receiver to watch is converted quarterback Randall Mackey, who Ole Miss will try to get the ball as often as possible, whether split out wide or coming out of the backfield. This quartet, along with sophomore Vince Sanders and junior Philander Moore, leads the way at the position.

The Rebels might place the welfare of the offensive line into the hands of two JUCO transfers. If a third JUCO addition grabs the starting role at quarterback, as expected, the Rebels’ offense as a whole might hinge nearly entirely on the play of three mid-term transfers. One JUCO lineman, Pierce Burton, is penciled in as the starter at right tackle; a second, Derrick Wilson, is battling junior Emmanuel McCray — himself a potential first-year starter — for the nod at left tackle. There’s more experience inside, where center Evan Swindall and guards A.J. Hawkins and Aaron Morris have started games in the past. Swindell started the final seven games of last season at center, replacing Hawkins, who will shift out to right guard. Morris, a sophomore, made six starts at left guard as a rookie. Depth is an issue, however. The only reserve lineman with adequate experience is junior right tackle Patrick Junen, who made a handful of starts inside in 2011.

You’ll take strengths where you can get ‘em, especially in the SEC. Given the nature of the conference, however, you might prefer to be stronger along the front seven than in the secondary; Ole Miss has that script flipped, with an opportunistic defensive backfield behind a front seven — a defensive line in particular — that stands as a work in progress. With most of its secondary pieces back in the fold, Ole Miss should continue to do a fairly commendable job against the pass. But after giving up yards in bunches in the running game, the Rebels need to recommit themselves to getting stops on first and second down.

Begin with the secondary, where Ole Miss is confident in its cornerback pairing of senior Wesley Pendleton (19 tackles) and junior Dehendret Collins. Pendleton, a 10-game starter last fall, was the defensive star of spring ball. A JUCO transfer, Collins stepped right into a starting role over the first half of the spring. As elsewhere, Ole Miss brought in Collins to start from day one; he needs to produce, because the Rebels shouldn’t feel overly confident in the depth at cornerback.

The star of the secondary, and perhaps of the defense altogether, is junior safety Charles Sawyer (70 tackles, team-leading 4 interceptions). An all-SEC contender in 2012, Sawer will shift over from free safety to the rover spot in this new defense. The Rebels will continue to audition senior Tanner Burns and redshirt freshman Chief Brown at free safety until one separates himself from the other — or until a summertime arrival sparks a new round of competition — while Brishen Matthews hold the top spot at the Rebels’ hybrid linebacker-safety position. Additional depth in the backfield comes from sophomores Cody Prewitt (32 tackles), Senquez Golson and Cliff Coleman. While Wommack and McGriff will trot out multiple looks, the defense will normally run with five defensive backs.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to pinpoint when — or if — junior D.T. Shackelford returns to the field for Ole Miss. Perhaps the most gifted defender on this roster, Shackelford underwent a second knee surgery in January, providing another setback for a linebacker with game-changing ability. With his future in doubt, Ole Miss will again need a big season from junior middle linebacker Mike Marry (team-leading 81 tackles), an all-SEC pick who will also serve in a valuable leadership role for this reworked defense.

Joining Marry along the second level are seniors Aaron Garbutt (51 tackles), a former JUCO transfer, and Joel Kight, a very strong reserve in the middle. The Rebels also like redshirt freshman Denzel Nkemdiche — they love his younger brother — and sophomore Keith Lewis. The latter missed spring ball due to injury but should be in the rotation come September.

Ole Miss saw some nice things from sophomore end C.J. Johnson (32 tackles), who made a quick move down from the linebacker and made three starts as a true freshman. He’s one defensive lineman with solid potential; the Rebels will desperately need Johnson to play beyond his years and inexperience, providing this punchless defense with some push off the edge. Johnson is joined at end by junior Cameron Whigham and seniors Gerald Rivers (13 tackles, 4.5 for loss) and Jason Jones, each of whom made at least one start at the position in 2011. While Johnson and Whigham were listed as the starters heading into the summer, look for all four to play extensive snaps. And as with Mathers at running back, star recruit Channing Ward, the top prospect in Mississippi as a senior, could make a move for a major role as a true freshman.

Former JUCO transfer Uriah Grant dabbled at end last fall, but he’s a better option inside. At around 300 pounds, Grant can help senior Gilbert Pena and sophomore Bryon Bennett along the interior; as noted earlier, the Rebels’ run defense was particularly abysmal a year ago. Grant, sophomore Carlton Martin and redshirt freshman Woodrow Hamilton were listed as the reserves behind Pena and Bennett as the Rebels capped spring ball, though Grant, who was limited with injuries, could easily push Bennett for snaps at tackle once he returns to full health.

Position battle(s) to watch

Quarterback That Bo Wallace was unable to move ahead of Barry Brunetti during spring ball speaks to two things, in my opinion. The first is to the relative complexity of Freeze’s quarterback-based offensive system, which while friendly to the position and simplistic in its overall goals — short, quick, aggressive — remains difficult to grasp over the span of 15 spring practices. The second is to the level of consistency Freeze demands from the position; he was somewhat blessed to have inherited Ryan Aplin, an experienced, dual-threat starter, while running the show at Arkansas State. A third take might reflect well on Brunetti: perhaps he’s put last season’s painful experience to good use, with his SEC and F.B.S. experience standing out against Wallace’s career on the JUCO ranks.

But Ole Miss brought in Wallace to start at quarterback. That’s the most important factor to consider when viewing the Rebels’ ongoing quarterback competition, which ended in May with Brunetti and the JUCO transfer in a dead heat atop the depth chart. Last fall, while Brunetti was moving in and out of the starting lineup — he started the first and last games of the season — Wallace was setting passing records on the JUCO level. Wallace set three meaningful national JUCO records: passing touchdowns (53), passing yards (4,810) and total yards (4,604). Brunetti, meanwhile, had a season-high of 110 yards in the loss to Mississippi State. Is that all there is to the story?

Not quite. Wallace is the future starter, not just in 2012 but likely for the next two or three years, should he turn into the player most expect. But Brunetti’s running ability does give him a leg up over his competitor, especially given the way that Aplin ran Freeze’s offense at Arkansas State; at its most dangerous, the system features a quarterback who can hit on 65 percent of his attempts while adding another dimension as a running threat. Wallace is a passer first and a runner second, and it’s clear that his gifts lie more with the former, not the latter. Consider one more fact: Wallace spent the 2010 season at A.S.U. while Freeze was the Red Wolves’ offensive coordinator. Even if returning to this offense provided a steep learning curve during the spring, Wallace does stand a bit farther ahead in the process than your normal JUCO transfer.

Here’s my guess: Wallace is named the starter no earlier than midway through fall camp. Brunetti is the primary backup, with senior Zack Stoudt an emergency option. Wallace has the ability as a passer to lead the Rebels’ offense out of the doldrums — with Freeze’s help, of course. All he needs is time, practice snaps and a few receivers. Only the third need is out of Wallace’s control.

Game(s) to watch

Freeze can open with 11 straight losses but beat Mississippi State — or whatever name he’s using to call the Bulldogs — and all will be right in the world. There’s no questioning how important that game will be for the Rebels, but a more pragmatic view has the four non-conference games determining how successful Freeze’s debut campaign with the program plays out. More specifically, the year might hinge on whether Ole Miss can muster some magic against Texas on Sept. 15. The Rebels will gain some much-needed confidence against Central Arkansas and UTEP; a win over the Longhorns, as far-fetched an idea as this might be, might catapult Ole Miss into a special season. Special, in this case, simply means bowl eligibility.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Freeze has embraced the challenge. It’s easy to overlook this fact, but don’t ignore its importance: Freeze has jumped in with both feet, working tirelessly in an effort to remake this program from an SEC laughingstock into one capable of going blow-for-blow with the rest of the premier conference in major college football. It’ll take nothing less than a supreme effort to bring the Rebels back into conference contention; in essence, it will take two steps forward for every one the rest of the SEC makes from this day forward — the Rebels are far back of the pack, as of today, and it won’t be easy to make up this lost ground. It’ll be painful. There will be losses. Yes, there will be losses. But I’m wholly convinced that in Freeze, Ole Miss has the right man for the job. All the program needs is time and patience, with heavy emphasis on the latter. The offensive system will work in time, just not today. There’s little play-making ability in the backfield and at running back. Wallace is a solid passer, but you can’t expect an inexperienced JUCO transfer to step right in and play at a high level. The offensive line has some experience along the interior but is untested at both left and right tackle. The defense needs help along the front seven; the secondary is in fine hands, but the Rebels can’t afford to suffer any injuries. The only area where this team stands alongside the top half of this league is on special teams. Where is Ole Miss today? In the bottom slice of the SEC. Where can Ole Miss be tomorrow? The Rebels will go as far as Freeze can take them — and you can’t ask for much more than that.

Dream season The Rebels open 4-0, knocking off Texas on Sept. 15, and use that as a springboard to a .500 mark in SEC play. Thanks to this eight-win debut, Freeze is the runaway pick as SEC Coach of the Year.

Nightmare season Ole Miss beats Central Arkansas to open the year and Tulane three weeks later, but that’s all. The Rebels are again outclassed during conference play, failing to lose one game by fewer than 10 points.

In case you were wondering

Where do Mississippi fans congregate? Start with The Oxford Square and Red Cup Rebellion before moving on to RebelSports.net and Ole Miss Spirit. Additional coverage can be found via Hugh Kellenberger of The Jackson Clarion-Ledger.

Mississippi’s all-name nominee WR Philander Moore.

Word Count

Through 32 teams 110,540.

Up Next

Who is No. 92? The last year that tomorrow’s program scored more points than its opposition over the span of an entire season the highest-grossing film in America co-starred an actor who has been nominated for a Golden Globe, Emmy and Tony Award.

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Comments

  1. BobJ says:

    At Alabama, at Arkansas, at Georgia, at LSU. Good grief.

  2. David says:

    I’m guessing that Colorado is next (2002, The Two Towers, Sir Ian McKellen).

    Other possibilities:
    EMU, 1995, Die Hard 3, Jeremy Irons
    WKU or Virginia, 2007, Pirates 3, Geoffrey Rush
    Several candidates, 2006, Pirates 2, Rush

    Rush and Irons are winners of Golden Globe, Emmy, and Tony Awards (not merely nominees), and you’re usually precise in your clues. Despite several nominations, McKellen has never an Emmy, so I’m going with Colorado.

  3. David says:

    Ah, I wasn’t consulting a US-specific list of top grossing films — 2002 in the US was Spider-Man.

  4. Walrus says:

    That schedule is wrong. Rebs don’t play N. ill, la tech, Fresno state or Kentucky this year.

    Paul: You’re reading a brief excerpt from last year’s preview. I just put that there to show how I thought things were going to play out the season before.

  5. sec fan says:

    Mike Wallace played at ole miss.

    Paul: Yes, he did. My best guess as to why I didn’t list him is that (I believe) he’s not currently under contract. So he didn’t appear in the database of active N.F.L. players.

  6. Chris says:

    Excellent analysis….. best I’ve read.

  7. GTWrek says:

    to paraphrase an earlier comment:

    Two SEC schools ranked below 90. Priceless, and why do these guys still have AQ status?

  8. Scott says:

    Got the all-name nominee wrong. There’s no way Philander Moore doesn’t win that one going away.

    Paul: An absolutely egregious mistake. A starter on the all-name team. Fixing above.

  9. Jason says:

    Heard you on Sports Radio 610 this morning in Houston. I am an Ole Miss fan who is trying to be positive about our future with Hugh Freeze and our new AD. I think your write-up is spot on in terms of sobering expectations for this year and probably next year but that Freeze is the right guy for the job. As bad as last year was in terms of the scoreboard results, what was even worse was it being painfully obvious that many of the players quit (even being called out on national TV against Alabama). I never remember seeing that, even in the Orgeron days. I am hoping Freeze can at least instill a culture change this year and get these guys to play with heart even if we are getting pummeled (which is no easy task). Thanks again for the inciteful information..

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