No. 37 Ole Miss
Two weeks before Ole Miss was scheduled to open fall camp, the program was obliterated by a bombshell: Head coach Hugh Freeze resigned.
The Rebels, who were already facing a self-imposed postseason ban, now enter the 2017 season with an absurd amount of short- and long-term questions. They're still a decent football team and while the student-athletes deserve fans' attention and support, this story and the NCAA investigation will dominate Ole Miss football talk all season.
And honestly, their 37th ranking is now very aggressive. It's anyone's guess what the Rebels will do on the field.
2016 Record: 5-7 (2-6, SEC)
When Hugh Freeze took over in 2012, a five-win season would've been a tremendous and celebrate feat after Houston Nutt imploded — won six total games over his final two years. Now it's a major letdown.
After going 19-7 the last two seasons, the Rebels had their win total cut in half from 2015 to 2016. They blew a big lead to Florida State in the opener and were embarrassed by Vanderbilt and Mississippi State in the final two games, losing by a combined score of 93-37.
Head Coach: Matt Luke (1st year)
I was literally writing the section on Hugh Freeze when news broke that he resigned and Matt Luke was named interim head coach.
Luke is from Mississippi and played center at Ole Miss (1995-98) before joining the Rebels' staff a year later as an assistant coach. He was preparing for his sixth season as offensive coordinator under Freeze.
The university will say Luke has a real chance at earning the job. No chance that happens. He might be a fine coach but you can bet the farm that he's not getting the permanent gig.
Key Returning Offensive Players
QB Shea Patterson, RB Jordan Wilkins, RB Eric Swinney, WR Van Jefferson, WR A.J. Brown, OT Greg Little, G Jordan Sims, G Javon Patterson, C Sean Rawlings
Shea Patterson — the top-ranked quarterback in the 2016 class — unexpectedly burned his redshirt when starter Chad Kelly tore his ACL in November. Though throwing Patterson into the fire and losing a year of eligibility for just three games was not ideal, the experience was invaluable and allowed the staff to get a better feel for his in-game tendencies and talent.
“It was a fairly easy decision once I knew Shea and his parents were on board with it," Freeze said of the decision to play Patterson. "I can’t preach ‘team’ all year long and then look at Evan Engram and Fadol Brown and everybody else and say ‘Hey, I’m not going to give you the best chance to win in your last three games.’ So once Shea and his family were on board, it was a pretty easy decision."
Arguably most impressively, Patterson — who threw for 338 yards and two touchdowns in his first game, a win over Texas A&M — was a selective scrambler, something that even veteran dual-threat quarterback struggle with. He didn't panic when the pocket broke down and rarely bailed before it was necessary.
His backfield mates will be senior Jordan Wilkins and sophomore Eric Swinney, both of whom missed the 2016 season. Wilkins averaged six yards per carry over the two previous seasons.
Two more sophomores in Van Jefferson and A.J. Brown are expected to be Patterson's primary targets. They both had terrific freshman campaigns, combining for 78 catches for 955 yards and five scores.
The sophomore parade continues on the offensive line, where new co-coordinator Phil Longo, a revered run-game guru from Sam Houston State, gets back four starters. Sophomore Greg Little, a former five-star recruit, earned All-SEC Freshman honors after making five starts at tackle. The line allowed 4.67 tackles for loss per game, lowest in the nation.
“Phil Longo has put up crazy numbers everywhere he’s been,” Freeze said at SEC Media Days. “That’s not what sold me on him. It’s his love for being innovative, for thinking outside the box and for being effective in downs where you have to run the football. We’d been deficient there.”
Key Returning Defensive Players
DE Marquis Haynes, DT Breeland Speaks, LB DeMarquis Gates, CB Myles Hartsfield, CB Ken Webster, S Zedrick Woods
To put it kindly, the Ole Miss defense was not great in 2016. They ranked in the nation's bottom third in scoring, rush and total defense, along with third-down and red-zone defense. New co-coordinator Wesley McGriff, the Rebels' former defensive backs coach, has the pieces to turn around a unit that allowed 34 or more points even times, including 55 in the season finale vs. Mississippi State.
"I haven't had a harder practice since high school," junior defensive tackle Breeland Speaks said. "Working with McGriff, he pushes us, he makes sure everybody is doing what they're supposed to and he works."
Speaks is key to improving a rush defense that ranked worst in the SEC. The 6-foot-3, 285-pounder had 28 tackles last year but just 1.5 tackles for loss.
"We could not stop the run last year," Freeze said. "We scored enough points to win a lot of games last year, but we could not stop anyone. So McGriff I believe is the right guy for that along with his staff that I'm very excited about."
Defensive end Marquis Haynes is back after considering leaving early for the NFL. He was their lone reliable pass rusher in 2016, leading the team in both sacks (seven) and tackles for loss (11).
Haynes also added three forced fumbles and will team with senior outside linebacker DeMarquis Gates as their primary disrupters.
In the secondary, they get a huge piece back in senior corner Ken Webster, who missed all of 2016 with a torn ACL. He and Myles Hartsfield form a solid duo on the edges and junior safety Zedrick Woods will patrol the backend.
Notable Player Losses
QB Chad Kelly, RB Akeem Judd, TE Evan Engram, WR Damore'ea Stringfellow, CB Tony Bridges
As terrific as Chad Kelly was the last two seasons, his loss is almost irrelevant. Shea Patterson has the tools to be even better and should give them All-SEC-level talent for at least the next two years.
Patterson, however, will be without leading rusher Akeem Judd and leading receivers Evan Engram and Damore'ea Stringfellow. Engram's otherworldly combination of size and size will be greatly missed. He had eight touchdowns and averaged 14.2 yards per catch.
The biggest defensive loss was corner Tony Bridges, a former JUCO transfer who dazzled in 2015 and the first half of 2016 before missing the final month with injury.
Notable Player Additions
DE Markel Winters
Despite signficant offensive losses and the postseason ban, we'll see very few new faces for Ole Miss in 2017 — of course that could change with the Hugh Freeze resignation. One player to keep an eye on is JUCO transfer Markel Winters.
A 6-foot-3, 252-pounder defensive end, Winters is competing for snaps and could be a force opposite Marquis Haynes.
With a three-game road trip to Cal, Alabama and Auburn looming, it'll be easy to overlook South Alabama in the home opener. The Jaguars beat San Diego State last year and have terrified other legit opponents.
The road trip is immediately followed with a rare mid-season three-game homestand highlighted by LSU on Oct. 21. Other notable games include Texas A&M (home) on Nov. 18 and Mississippi State (away) on Nov. 23.
|Saturday, Sept. 2||vs. South Alabama|
|Saturday, Sept. 9||vs. UT-Martin|
|Saturday, Sept. 16||at Cal|
|Saturday, Sept. 30||at Alabama|
|Saturday, Oct. 7||at Auburn|
|Saturday, Oct. 14||vs. Vanderbilt|
|Saturday, Oct. 21||vs. LSU|
|Saturday, Oct. 28||vs. Arkansas|
|Saturday, Nov. 4||at Kentucky|
|Saturday, Nov. 11||vs. UL-Lafayette|
|Saturday, Nov. 18||vs. Texas A&M|
|Thursday, Nov. 23||at Mississippi State|