Ole Miss vying for SEC West title
OXFORD -- A big chunk of Mississippi star’s power from last season is gone, off to the NFL after helping push the program into the upper tier of the Southeastern Conference. But the Rebels who remain are pretty good, too. And that’s exactly the reason Ole Miss feels it can be even better than last season, when the team won 10 games and took home the Sugar Bowl trophy for the first time since 1970. But players and coaches say there is plenty more to prove for a program that hasn’t won a Southeastern Conference title since 1963. “We could talk a long time on that one,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said. “I assure you there’s motivation.” The Rebels do have one legitimate star still on the roster. Senior quarterback Chad Kelly is viewed as a long-shot Heisman Trophy candidate after throwing for more than 4,000 yards and running for 500 more in his first season as the team’s starter. But Ole Miss must replace standouts like offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, receiver Laquon Treadwell and defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, who were all selected in the first round of the NFL draft in April. Freeze is confident in the internal replacements. Freshman left tackle Greg Little was one of the nation’s top recruits last season — though he may not start right away. Receivers Damore’ea Stringfellow and Quincy Adeboyejo, along with tight end Evan Engram, are back after being important parts of last year’s passing game. And veteran defensive linemen like Fadol Brown, Marquis Haynes and D.J. Jones — along with the arrival of touted freshman Benito Jones — could make the Rebels even deeper at that spot this season. Ole Miss needs to be ready right away. The Rebels have a brutal September schedule that starts with a neutral site game against Florida State on Sept. 5 in Orlando. There are also back-to-back home games against Alabama and Georgia later in the month. “I’ve never been on a staff that faced a September quite like what we’re facing,” Freeze said. “It’s not hard to motivate our kids. They understand what’s in front of them, so that’s a positive.” Here are a few things to watch for the Rebels this season: KEEP MOVING UP: Freeze is in his fifth season has improved the program by one win each season. The Rebels had a 7-6 record in 2012 before eight wins in ’13, nine wins in ‘14 and finally 10 last season. Considering the Rebels’ difficult schedule, 11 wins in 2016 would be quite a feat. PATTERSON IN WAITING: Kelly will run the show at quarterback this season, but the Rebels hope his eventual replacement will be just as good. Freshman Shea Patterson was one of the nation’s top quarterback recruits and both Freeze and Kelly have raved about his quick release and ability to learn the playbook. NCAA DISTRACTION: Ole Miss might be good on the field, but a four-year NCAA investigation into the athletic program, including football, continues to fester. Freeze and the players say the investigation won’t be a distraction but it’s certainly something to watch if big news happens in the case during mid-season. CONNER’S BACK: The Ole Miss defense is welcoming the return of senior safety Tony Conner, who missed a big chunk of last season because of a knee injury. Conner had 69 tackles, which ranked second on the team, as a sophomore in 2014. TRYING FOR BALANCE: Ole Miss was one of the nation’s elite passing teams last season, but sometimes struggled to run the ball. The Rebels hope a combo of veterans like Jordan Wilkins and Akeem Judd can help the team improve after averaging 183 yards on the ground last season, which ranked 7th in the SEC. KEY GAMES: If Ole Miss can get past its difficult September schedule, there are still a lot of tough games, including back-to-back road trips to Arkansas and LSU in October. And, of course, there’s always the Egg Bowl against rival Mississippi State on Nov. 26. PREDICTION: Ole Miss is good, but the schedule is nasty and it’s hard to see a scenario where the Rebels are able to roll through September unscathed. Look for Ole Miss to win a few big games and lose a few, too, putting them in the middle of the pack in the SEC’s Western Division. SEASON OPENER: A neutral site game against Florida State in Orlando on Sept. 5.