HOOVER, Ala. — Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze is preparing for the third year of rebuilding the Rebels after the rocky end of Houston Nutt’s tenure.
He made it clear the project is going much smoother than expected Thursday.
“Being perfectly candid, I think we’re ahead,” Freeze said.
It’s safe to say Freeze is oozing confidence about the direction his program is headed three years after the Rebels went 2-10 and winless in the SEC. Ole Miss won seven games in Freeze’s first season, eight last fall and came to SEC Media Days anticipating another jump is on the way as they step into the 2014 season.
In fact, Ole Miss thinks it is capable of being the surprise team in the rugged SEC West this season. The Rebels were selected to finish fourth behind Alabama, Auburn and LSU in this week’s SEC Media Days projection, but quarterback Bo Wallace said Ole Miss has much larger ambitions as they move closer to the start of camp.
“Why can’t we come out of the West and make some noise?” Wallace said.
Of course, teams around the conference take the same stance every summer.
But there are a few reasons to believe it’s possible for the Rebels this season.
Freeze said the first is that Ole Miss has finally been able to fill its full allotment of 85 scholarships after previously handing some to walk-ons. Freeze said the Rebels only had 68 scholarship players his first season, which created depth issues.
Ole Miss still reached back-to-back bowl games despite being short on numbers.
“I didn’t think, with knowing the SEC, being around it my whole life, following it, coaching circles, I wasn’t sure we could accomplish what we had in year one and year two,” Freeze said. “So I think it’s expedited more than what I anticipated.”
There’s no doubt Ole Miss showed its potential several times last season, too.
The Rebels were just 3-5 in SEC games, but it included a win against LSU in Oxford, Miss. They had opportunities to beat opponents like Texas A&M, Auburn and Mississippi State as well, but fell short of finishing off wins.
“We were in all the games,” Ole Miss defensive end CJ Johnson said. “The Alabama game was probably the only one that got out of hand. Auburn game we should’ve won. A&M game we should’ve won. Mississippi State game we should’ve won that one, too. So we’re right there. To experience that and to come back this year with that on our mind is definitely going to help.”
The good news for Ole Miss is that the schedule is more favorable this season.
The Rebels open the season in Atlanta, playing Boise State in the 2014 Chick-fil-A kickoff game. Ole Miss also has to travel to LSU. But Rebels plays two of its toughest conference games — along with the Egg Bowl against Mississippi State — at home against Alabama (Oct. 4) and Auburn (Nov. 1).
“That’s going to help us out a little bit because those are two, very, very tough places to play,” said Wallace, who returns for his third season as a starter. “But we’re excited to play both of those teams just like we are everybody else in the West.”
Freeze said Wallace’s return is key to Ole Miss’ hopes as well.
The quarterback was limited because of a shoulder injury last season, but returns as the SEC’s leading passer after throwing for 3,346 yards with 18 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Wallace said Thursday he’s healthy and ready for one final run.
Freeze said Wallace — who was a third-team All-SEC selection Thursday — can make his mark on the program with another solid season.
“There’s no way we win two bowl games without him the past two seasons,” Freeze said. “I think he’s matured quite nicely in the way he leads our team, the way he goes about our business. He feels finally healthy and confident.”
So is Freeze, who proved it when he addressed the Wynfrey ballroom Thursday.
The coach hasn’t forgotten his first year here in 2012, when South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier poked the Rebels after a 2-10 season. In reference to SEC scheduling, Spurrier said the Gamecocks would like to play Ole Miss every season.
Freeze — who played a round of golf with Spurrier and Auburn coach Gus Malzahn at the SEC spring meetings — noted the difference before his third season begins.
“One good thing about Media Days is Coach Spurrier isn’t talking about Ole Miss as much, wanting to play us every year,” Freeze said. “Maybe that’s a good thing.”