By Parrish Alford
HOOVER, Ala. – Hugh Freeze took the podium at SEC Media Days for the third time, ready to answer questions about the buzz around his Ole Miss football team and eager to take something positive from the way the Rebels ran out of gas at the end of last season.
With bowl wins in his first two seasons, six starters returning on offense and nine on defense Ole Miss has been a popular top 25 pick in preseason magazines.
Athlon has Ole Miss at No. 18, Phil Steele at No. 16. More preseason polls are on the way.
“With two successful seasons and the recruiting our coaches have done there’s no question expectations are going to be raised,” Freeze told writers in a crowded hotel ballroom on Thursday.
Expectations were raised on the fly last year after the Rebels won at Texas to start 3-0 and enter the national rankings.
However, they finished just 3-5 in conference play. They lost their last two games, at home against Eastern Division champ Missouri and at rival Mississippi State, before rallying for a Music City Bowl win against Georgia Tech.
In 2013, Freeze relied heavily on freshmen from a top 10 recruiting class. The reality of how much they were needed at so many positions may have contributed to November struggles.
The Texas road win was exciting, so too the opening-night win at Vanderbilt on ESPN, but prime time can have its drawbacks.
“We depended on so many of those young kids, and the way we opened the season, so many road games in a row, and it ended up that every road game was at 7 or 8 at night. We were getting back at 3 or 4 a.m. That was a whole new world for those freshmen, and I do believe it took somewhat of a toll on them,” Freeze said.
Those freshmen got plenty done during the season. Offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil and defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche were named first-team preseason All-SEC on Thursday, and wide receiver Laquon Treadwell made the second team along with defensive back Tony Conner.
Freeze is hopeful the sophomore class is more conditioned to the demands of the season and that he can handle this year’s batch of freshmen differently.
Not as many will be expected to play right away, but there will be some, most notably Rod Taylor along the offensive line. Another newcomer, junior college transfer Fahn Cooper, will be needed to help up front early as well.
Wide receivers Markell Pack and Dayall Harris will have a chance to play early. Sammie Epps (6-5, 215) is listed as a tight end, but Freeze mentioned him with the receivers.
The mix of old and new and the accumulation of depth have Freeze optimistic what lies ahead in the SEC West.
“I think it’s wide open,” he said. “We’re a better football team, but the others are also.”