Freeze, Rebels will deal with expectations
HOOVER, Ala. — Success has come quicker to Ole Miss football than coach Hugh Freeze was expecting. He said that repeatedly during his two-hour stay at SEC Media Days Thursday.
Freeze, who has won 15 games the last two years, felt like a bowl trip wouldn’t have come until this season, his third in Oxford. So the fact that the Rebels have won back-to-back bowl games already and moved gradually up the standings in the SEC West isn’t lost on Freeze; it’s just a little more surprising than not.
“We had some very nice wins last year, like going to Texas and winning, then beating No. 6 LSU in the beginning of the year,” Freeze said. “We didn’t finish the season like we wanted, obviously. But with the recruiting that our coaches have done and with those two successful seasons, there’s no question that the expectations are raised.”
Ole Miss was picked to finish fourth in the SEC West this season by the media. That’s significant considering Freeze’s first team was picked to finish last. There is a buzz that the Rebels could win as many as nine or ten games this year thanks to a more favorable schedule and 15 returning starters.
“I think most fans that are close to our program realize that we’re still maybe a year or two away from looking like a total SEC team in the depth chart,” Freeze said. “But I said on day one that my expectations were to make Ole Miss very relevant in the SEC West. And I think this year we should do that. That’s my expectation. We should be competitive in every single game.”
Freeze can’t control injuries to his players this season, but, if the Rebels stay healthy, there is enough talent on the roster to feel like the Rebels can compete with any team.
Junior C.J. Johnson thought the defense would be the biggest key to the team taking another step this year. Last season, the Rebels finished ranked No. 38 in the nation on defense. Johnson felt like, with players like sophomore Robert Nkemdiche, who was named to the All-SEC first team as a defensive tackle, and senior safety Cody Prewitt at safety, he was about to be a part of a nationally ranked unit.
“I think, with the players we have coming back and the talent that we have, we can be good and take that next step,” Johnson said. “I think that’s where we are as a defense. I think we realize that we have the people in place to be nationally ranked unit and that we have the right amount of guys to go out and get that done.”
Prewitt and quarterback Bo Wallace joined Johnson at SEC Media Days this week, and all three were confident about what the team could achieve with the high expectations staring them in the face.
“Last year nobody expected Auburn to win the thing, and they won it all,” Johnson said. “We’ve talked about it as a team here for a while. We’ve raised the expectations from year one to year two, and now it’s just time to take that next step. I don’t get caught up in the pre-season rankings, but you can feel how the fans’ expectations are for this team. I think that’s with everybody around our program.”