With Hugh Freeze's Ole Miss Rebels having finished spring drills, buzz around the program seems to be steadily rising with each passing day. It's certainly a positive sign, but also something that can be counterproductive to the Rebels' long-term gridiron goals.
Rebels on the Rise
At first glance, why wouldn't fans have great expectations about the 2013 season?
After two years as SEC cellar dwellers under Houston Nutt (4-8 in 2010; 2-10 in 2011), Freeze quickly turned the program back into a winner in his first season. Not only did he cap the regular season with a dominant win over in-state rival Mississippi State, but he also led Ole Miss to a 2013 BBVA Compass Bowl victory over Pitt.
One month after the bowl victory, Freeze inked ESPN's No. 5 recruiting class for 2013.
Over March and April, the Rebels held spring drills in Oxford, which included the arrival of eight talented mid-year enrollees. On April 13, 28,000 fans attended the annual Grove Bowl to end spring drills.
Alas, there's somewhat of a break in action for Rebel fans. Awaiting the arrival of an epic recruiting class on campus this summer, now is the perfect opportunity for everyone around the SEC program to take a collective breath of fresh air.
With a short window between spring and summer practices, there's no better time to try and temper expectations a bit ahead of the fall. For an upstart program like Ole Miss, the worst thing that could happen to a fanbase is to be disappointed by unrealistic expectations this season.
Speaking at a recent stop on the Rebel Road Trip, Freeze urged fans to temper expectations. He told the Clarion Ledger's Chris Thomas, "I think anytime you have unrealistic expectations, frustration comes with that. As spring revealed, we’re not where we need to be depth-wise. We were fortunate last year to not get many injuries."
The head coach is spot-on, folks. Pay attention.
Taking the Next Step
As great of a turnaround as Freeze orchestrated in 2012, taking that "next step" is often the hardest part of going from good to great in sports.
Heck, it's a hard process in everyday life, too.
Freeze suggested to the Clarion Ledger, “Our next step is to compete in every single game. It’s time to win a few of those (marquee) games — not all of them — but just to have a chance to win at the end.”
The Rebels were "close" in games against Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and LSU last season (actually holding leads in each contest), but fourth-quarter play was their ultimate demise in each game. That being said, Freeze's kids played far beyond their years during his first season in Oxford.
While Ole Miss should be more comfortable in Freeze's system and return the vast majority of starters from last year's club, the team's ultimate level of success in 2013 will be determined by its ability to close games out in the fourth quarter. It's that simple, and the head coach knows it.
Many Variables at Play in 2013
The boys in red and blue should win some fourth-quarter battles in Year 2 under Freeze, but don't necessarily expect them to win every one of them. It may happen, but beware of setting the bar unrealistically high for a program only in Year 2 of an entirely new coaching staff.
Even though an onslaught of top-notch true freshmen will join the Rebels this summer, remember these kids will be fresh out of high school. It's one thing to expect true freshmen to have shorter learning curves in smaller conferences, but this is the SEC we're talking about. It's a man's league.
That being said, expect a good number of these freshmen to find considerable playing time as the season progresses. Players like DE Robert Nkemdice, OT Laremy Tunsil, S Tony Conner and WR Laquon Treadwell are entirely too gifted to sit on the sidelines for very long. The question simply becomes how quickly they will they adjust to the speed of the college game.
Last but not least, Freeze and company are still searching for a backup behind starting QB Bo Wallace. As I've stated countless times before, this could turn out to be the most important element in what could be a special run by the Rebels this season.
Regardless of whether or not the rising junior gunslinger returns healthy for the August 29 opener, a trusted reserve is paramount to Ole Miss behind a Brett Favre-esque starter that isn't afraid to take hits. A potential dream season could quickly head south if Wallace goes down and there isn't a trusted party ready to step in and lead the offense.
Be Realistic and Enjoy the Show
So, what are realistic expectations for Ole Miss this year?
In my opinion, Rebels fans should set their early expectations at eight wins.
The caveat is this: There's potential for several more wins, if players can stay healthy.
Having posted six regular-season wins plus a bowl victory in 2012, eight wins is a very logical expectation (whether win eight comes in the regular season or in a bowl game). Had even one close loss turned out the other way for Ole Miss, it would have notched eight wins in Freeze's first year.
It's when people start talking about winning the SEC West or winning nine or 10 games next season that folks close to the program begin to sweat a little, and rightfully so. That's lofty talk.
A disastrous situation for the Rebels in 2013 would be for fans to set prematurely high expectations, then see the team struggle to achieve bowl eligibility for one reason or another. While the scenario isn't a very likely one (or one that I envision happening), anything's possible.
If that scenario were to unfold, a currently united Rebel fanbase would quickly divide.
In order to keep the Rebel program on the rise well beyond 2013, fans just need to temper expectations a bit this season. By simply expecting the team to "compete in every game" as Freeze states, Ole Miss fans will be looking for their team to actually win some close games this year.
If the Rebs can win the ones they're supposed to and come out on top in a few close ones, then fans can rightfully possess "great expectations" in 2014. For now though, just allow Freeze to work his magic and set some realistic expectations for the upcoming campaign.
Enjoy the magnificent Grove at Ole Miss, pour a drink and head to the stadium expecting to see a team on a mission this year. If you do that, I can promise you won't be disappointed with the result.