First in a series
The Good: The 2011 season was already doomed by the time disaster struck in three games following the announcement of Houston Nutt’s firing in which the Rebels were outscored 110-13.
Hugh Freeze inherited academic and discipline issues, not to mention depth issues and talent issues and a 14-game SEC losing streak.
Even the optimistic in the fan base had buckled up for a long hard ride. That’s why seven wins, a bowl trip and victory were so celebrated.
The Rebels broke the streak, were competitive in losses and delivered the program’s first winning season since 2009.
They found star potential in linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche and wide receiver Donte Moncrief. Bo Wallace, a first-year junior college transfer with a bit of a gun slinger mentality, became an effecitve quarterback. He went on to win the Conerly Trophy awarded to Mississippi’s top college football player.
Ole Miss was dominant in its last two games, first against rival Mississippi State then against a solid Pittsburgh team in the bowl game.
It was all followed up by a consensus top 10 signing class in February, and now 17 starters return for 2013.
The Bad: A 7-6 season could easily have been 9-4, maybe 10-3. The Rebels left wins on the table against Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and LSU. They were competitive against Alabama, dominated only by Texas – before the Rebels really found themselves – and in the second half against Georgia.
The Bottom Line: When you start playing the “what if” game with the close losses you have to remember the Arkansas win could easily have swung the other way.
The Rebels were fortunate to have no major injuries during the season last year. Things went pretty well on that front, and it’s hard to believe that type of good fortune will true again. The spring injuries were an indication of the rarity of that good fortune.
The signing class should help with the depth issues, but there are still depth issues, and the Rebels will have to be a good road team out of the gate to equal last year’s success. If not, they could find them battling uphill to reach a bowl game when that string of October home games finally arrives.
The season opener at Vanderbilt is a big, big deal.
Freeze shifted his off-season talk from “wilderness” to “journey” and is right in his approach to encourage fans to manage expectations.
MVP: Bo Wallace. It’s easy to look at the quarterback position and say this, especially when the QB is going to roll up a lot of numbers in the Freeze offense. Consider this, however. Last year was Wallace’s first in the program, and he didn’t “wow” anybody upon arrival. He didn’t distance himself from Barry Brunetti in August camp, and he didn’t even have the full backing of Freeze when the season began as Freeze said the competition was still on-going at that time.
Wallace became a producer who got his receivers involved and often did this while side-stepping a pass rush. His mobility helped him not only keep plays alive but make plays in the run game where he was second with 390 yards and had a team-leading eight rushing touchdowns.
However, his decision-making was a season-long story line, and that needs to change. If it does, he’ll reduce his number of interceptions, which is a must. He threw 17 last year, and the quarterback can’t keep giving away the football.
Wallace is the MVP, but for the Rebels to move forward they really need him win the Most Improved award for 2013.
Most Improved: CJ Johnson. Recruited as a linebacker and moved to defensive end, Johnson had 32 tackles, four tackles for loss and a sack as a freshman. Not bad but also expected of a guy who was rated the No. 1 player in Mississippi, No. 21 in the nation by Rivals.com.
Johnson took a big step in the second year, a full-time starter at end, finishing with 55 tackles, eight tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks.
He appeared in all 13 games, starting 10, but down the stretch his playing time was limited with back issues.
The Rebels need Johnson to take another step forward this year. Totaling 6.5 sacks is good but not outstanding. Ole Miss needs more pressure off the edge. Clearly Freeze thinks so, because he signed Robert Nkemdiche but went after other defensive ends as well.
With Nkemdiche on board and Channing Ward with a year under his belt, there are other possibilities to provide that explosiveness off the edge, but it will be good news for the Rebels if further improvement comes from Johnson.