SQ College Football Top-25 Preview: #8 Ole Miss
The college football staff at SQ have put together a ranking of the top-25 teams heading into 2015. To get our readers prepared for the upcoming season, the staff has created a preview for each one of these teams. Today’s focus is on #8 Ole Miss.
Team: Ole Miss Rebels
SQ Ranking: 8
2014 Record: 9-4
Finish in AP Poll: 17
Head Coach: Hugh Freeze (4th year)
Previewing the Ole Miss Offense: For the first time in 3 years, the Rebels will have a new quarterback leading the offense. Bo Wallace graduated from Ole Miss with almost 10,000 passing yards, 81 total touchdowns, and one memorable victory against #1 Alabama at home. Last season, the Rebels started 7-0 before losing four of their last six games.
One of the main reasons for Ole Miss' struggles down the stretch was the injury to star receiver Laquon Treadwell. With 90 seconds remaining against Auburn, Treadwell was battling towards the end zone when he was dragged down from behind by Auburn linebacker Kris Frost. Treadwell's left ankle got rolled up underneath Frost; he broke his fibula and dislocated his ankle, fumbling on the play as well, adding insult to injury. Treadwell was on his way to having a great year, with 632 yards and 5 touchdowns, but had to sit out the rest of the year. Having Treadwell back in the offense will certainly boost the Rebels' firepower and and output, perhaps brining back the success they had to start 2014.
At the moment there are three quarterbacks vying for the starting job, all of them with an equal shot entering fall practices. Junior transfer Chad Kelly (nephew of Buffalo Bills Hall of Fame QB Jim Kelly), sophomore Ryan Buchanan, or DeVante Kincade, also a sophomore, will have to prove to Hugh Freeze that they are capable of replacing Bo Wallace.
Whoever ends up winning the quarterback battle will have plenty of talented receivers at his disposal. Besides Treadwell, Cody Core, Quincy Adeboyejo, Damore'ea Stringfellow, DeMarkus Lodge, Markell Pack, and others will help to ease the transition for the QB. All-SEC tight end Evan Engram is also returning and could prove to be a security blanket for the starting QB.
Previewing the Ole Miss Defense:
The Rebel defense lost a handful of talent from last season, but, led by the Nkemdiche brothers, they are still capable of being one of the best defenses in the SEC. After breaking his ankle against LSU, Denzel Nkemdiche missed the remainder of last season while brother Robert went on to have be a second-team All-American.
Hugh Freeze has recruited well on both sides of the ball and there should be plenty of young talent ready to make an impact. Last season, the Rebels "landshark" defense ranked 13th in the nation in total defense and 8th in tackles for loss. Expect to see more of the same this season from what should be a stout unit.
Now more than ever, the defense will need to help out an offense who will have a new starting quarterback under center (but mostly in shotgun). The Rebel defense won't need to force a bunch of turnovers, but getting off the field on third down will be key this season.
Three Key Games:
1. Ole Miss at Alabama, September 19th
This will be the first true test of the season for the Rebels and, no doubt, beating Bama for the second year in a row will be a tall task. Both teams have questions at the quarterback position, so this seems like a game that will come down to the defenses, with the Rebels trying to match a Crimson Tide unit that will undoubtedly be once again incredibly strong. Then again, that didn't seem to phase Laquon Treadwell and company last season.
2. Ole Miss at Auburn, October 31st
This game is definitely marked on the Rebels' calendar after a disappointing and heartbreaking loss to the Tigers in 2014. Auburn is talented as ever, and offensive guru Gus Malzahn may have a few tricks up his sleeve against the tough Ole Miss defense. About halfway through the conference schedule, this matchup could prove to have major implications, not only in the SEC, but on the national level as well.
3. Ole Miss at Missis sippi State, November 28th
The most important game of the season for the Rebels will be against Mississippi State in the "Egg Bowl." This game will be a crucial SEC-West matchup at the end of the regular season, but more than that, it's against an in-state rival. Both Mississippi schools had special seasons in 2014, but just like in any heated rivalry, a loss could render the Rebels' whole season a disappointment.
Final Analysis: The non-conference schedule for Ole Miss isn't very challenging but playing in the SEC-West means their in-conference schedule is. Whoever the starting quarterback for Ole Miss is, opposing defenses will try to test him by loading the box and making the QB beat them with his arm. Hugh Freeze will try to help by creating an effective game plan and establishing the run, but in a loaded half of a loaded conference, that might not be enough.
While road games against Alabama, Auburn, and Mississippi State could prove to be too much for an inexperienced starting quarterback, with a talented offense and a stalwart defense, Ole Miss at least has a shot. If the Rebels stay healthy they have a chance to win 10 games and make a great bowl game, but winning 8 or 9 games seems more reasonable for them this season.