PARRISH ALFORD: It's been a long, strange trip to 3-3 for Rebels

OXFORD – As we reach the midway point of the college football regular season, it’s been a different sort of season for Ole Miss.
In the beginning, this was to be a year of rebuilding.
Brief panic set in when redshirt freshman quarterback Raymond Cotton announced in July his decision to transfer, followed by a surge in hope and expectations with the signing of Oregon transfer quarterback Jeremiah Masoli. That was followed still by Masoli’s denial of immediate eligibility by the NCAA, his subsequent successful appeal, a season-ending injury to the team’s best returning defensive player – an injury preceded by a heart scare – and a revolving door along the offensive line.
Did I mention we’re only at the midway point?
Through it all, the Rebels made national news by losing to a I-AA team and appeared to be an offense in disarray in a disappointing home loss to Vanderbilt.
Now at 3-3, Ole Miss isn’t too far off the pace many thought it would on at this time, but what an incredible ride to reach this point, a point of uncertainty regarding a possible bowl game. There’s work to be done, and pulling an upset soon – against either No. 21 Arkansas this week or No. 7 Auburn the next – would be of great benefit to the mission.
Whether that happens remains to be seen, but after six games here’s what we know:
– The running game is good in spite of trouble along the offensive line.
– The receivers have potential but aren’t there yet.
– Jeremiah Masoli is the best quarterback for the Rebels at this point in time.
– The defense isn’t what it was built up to be, but appears to be getting better.
It’s taken a while for the staff to identify its top offensive linemen, but they may have found something in freshman walk-on Patrick Junen at left guard. Injuries and indiscretion – guard Rishaw Johnson, a player of All-SEC potential, was dismissed after breaking team rules – have been felt here. Tackles Bradley Sowell and Bobby Massie were expected to be good and have been.
You can see the pieces in place to have a very good line next year – but we’re talking about the middle of this year, and this is a group that is still coming together.
The Rebels this week are the SEC’s No. 2 rushing team, No. 19 in America, at 215.5 yards a game. Tailback Brandon Bolden is running hard and is doing a better job of bouncing outside when a hole isn’t available, a better job of breaking tackles and gaining yards after contact.
The receivers have been good but can be better. There are still some drops, which you’re going to have, but as a group they need to evolve to making tougher catches more often. Markeith Summers has been a good deep threat, and Melvin Harris, the 6-foot-7 sophomore, has come from out of the blue to be the team’s most consistent receiver.
Given the struggles on the line, the Rebels need Masoli. They need his ability to dodge tacklers and keep plays alive, his leadership.
Sophomore Nathan Stanley had a superb opening game against Jacksonville State, but he’s a drop-back passer who can’t be guaranteed time to throw behind an evolving line.
It’s possible Stanley could have success with a three-step drop and short pass patterns, but he wouldn’t reach his full potential right now, and the threat to run from trouble isn’t there. The run has been good to the Rebels, and that must continue in the quest for six wins and bowl eligibility.
Three of the top teams in the West are still on the schedule, and three wins need to be found. If they’re not, Ole Miss will not have seen the last of its humiliation from Jacksonville State.
Parrish Alford (parrish.alford@djournal.com) covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs daily about Ole Miss athletics at NEMS360.com.

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