College Football Preview 2014-2015: 17. Ole Miss Rebels
Coach: Hugh Freeze (3rd year)
2013-2014 Record: 8-5 (3-5 SEC)
August 28th vs. Boise State (in Atlanta)
September 6th @ Vanderbilt
September 13th vs. Louisiana
September 27th vs. Memphis
October 4th vs. Alabama
October 11th @ Texas A&M
October 18th vs. Tennessee
October 25th @ LSU
November 1st vs. Auburn
November 8th vs. Presbyterian
November 22nd @ Arkansas
November 29th vs. Mississippi State
In Hugh Freeze's first two years Ole Miss has won 15 games, showing sudden improvement after the program seemed to be falling apart under former coach Houston Nutt. But, this could be a breakout year for Ole Miss who returns 15 starters and once again brings in a Top 25 class after the surprising Top 10 class they brought in for 2013. Although the SEC West will be brutal again this season (even with Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M rebuilding) the Rebels now have the talent, the depth and the experience to have a breakthrough 2014 season.
Backfield: Senior quarterback Bo Wallace is now the most experienced quarterback in the SEC and he should be a big reason why many believe Ole Miss can take the next step. The dual threat can move very well in the pocket and also can make the big throws to beat defenses. He threw for 3,346 yards as a junior and with another year of seeing SEC defenses under his belt, that number could only increase. The loss of Jeff Scott at running back hurts but there is still a ton of talent in the backfield starting with junior I'Tavius Mathers. The electric playmaker actually led Ole Miss in rushing yards last season with 563 yards, averaging nearly six yards per carry. Jaylen Walton, a junior, also has experience and put together a strong 2013 and is also quick and elusive, like Mathers. If these backs stay healthy and Wallace makes some plays with his legs, Ole Miss could have one of the nation's most dangerous rushing attacks.
Receivers: Gone is Bo Wallace's favorite target, Donte Moncrief, who had 59 catches for 938 yards last year but graduated. That leaves sophomore Laquon Treadwell, a big piece in the 2013 recruiting class, as the top receiving option. Treadwell proved that he was one of the SEC's most explosive players, proving to be very dangerous after the catch. He had 72 receptions for 608 yards as a true freshman, he has the talent to put up crazy numbers. Senior Vince Sanders returns, giving the Rebels another dangerous target in the passing game. Not extremely explosive, Sanders is a good route runner with decent speed who just finds ways to get open. Add in sophomore tight end Evan Engram, an All-SEC player in 2013, these receiving corps have excellent experience and loads of talent. Engram is very athletic for a tight end and has good hands, catching 21 passes last year. Two incoming freshman, four-stars Markell Pack and Dayall Harris, add even more speed and depth to this group. Both are local Mississippi products and can be home run threats for Wallace to throw to, both have good hands.
Offensive Line: A number of important pieces on this O-Line are gone, including three starters. Center Evan Swindall was a pretty important piece and was very experienced and his position will not be easily replaced. The good news is that sophomore Laremy Tunsil returns and will most likely start at left tackle. Tunsil was another gem from that 2013 class and had a pretty impressive true freshman campaign. Tunsil really fits this offense well, he has the athleticism to keep up with the Rebels' up-tempo offensive scheme. Guard Aaron Morris will hopefully be healthy for the 2014 season after a torn ACL last year. Morris is a good athlete and should likely join Tunsil on protecting the quarterback on the left side. Replacing Swindall at center will likely be junior Ben Still, a smart, experienced veteran. The top talent in the 2014 recruiting class is guard Rod Taylor, a talent from Jackson, Mississippi, who is the No. 2 rated guard in this year's class. He is also a good athlete and is very durable; he should be able to compete for a starting slot right away with the questions Ole Miss does have on this line.
Defensive Line: The No.1 prospect in the 2013 recruiting class cycle, Robert Nkemdiche, looked pretty good in 2013. The versatile defensive stud can play all across the line but will spend most of his time at defensive tackle. He has an impressive motor and a nose for the ball, he was extremely impressive this spring. His speed and strength were on clear display this spring and he seemed to be comfortable as well. Joining him will be junior defensive end C.J. Johnson, who proved to be a pretty effective pass rusher last season. Johnson is a very dangerous player when healthy, he has great speed off the edge. Joining Nkemdiche up the middle will be junior defensive tackle Isaac Gross, who led the team in sacks last year. With those three returning, this pass rush should be pretty strong, it was a pretty major weakness on this team in 2013. Two true freshman, Garrald McDowell and Breeland Speaks, will provide some valuable depth to this unit.
Linebackers: Injuries really hit this group bad but sometimes that the good news is that gave a lot of little-used guys valuable experience. Now, with this group healthy and a lot of impressive depth, these linebackers could be a real strength. Denzel Nkemdiche (the brother of Robert and a big reason why he came to Ole Miss) was an All-SEC talent in 2013 and is very reliable. Senior Serderius Byrant is also back after an All-SEC season as well. Although he is undersized, just 5'9", 218 pounds, Bryant is tough and has great instincts. They will both compete for snaps at outside linebacker, the question is at middle linebacker. Senior Deterrian Shackelford and Keith Lewis will compete for the snaps. Shackelford is a good athlete who can hit the offensive player an jar the ball loose, while Lewis is a proven veteran who can be a real help in coverage. Four-star outside linebacker DeMarquis Gates could be heading for a redshirt year as Nkemdiche and Bryant will take away any chances of snaps he could have.
Special Teams: This is the big issue for the Rebels as they lose both kicker Andrew Ritter and punter Tyler Campbell. True freshman Gary Wunderlich has a great leg who can play both kicker and punter for the Rebels. Senior kicker Andrew Fletcher will also compete for the kicking position and has the experience that Wunderlich doesn't have.
The Rebels will begin their year with a meeting in Atlanta against a dangerous Boise State team and the conference schedule is extremely difficult, as expected in the SEC. If Wallace and the rest of the Rebels' offensive weapons can stay healthy and the front seven shows considerable improvement this will be a breakthrough season for Ole Miss.