The Ole Miss Rebels pulled off a football recruiting coup for the ages in 2013.
Don't look now, but the pieces are falling in place for 2014 to be equally as prosperous.
That's right, America, Ole Miss won't be a one-hit recruiting wonder.
With 11 recruits having already verbally committed for next year, including four Rivals.com 4-star prospects (OL Andy Bauer, RB D.K. Buford, LB Demarquis Gates and DB C.J. Hampton), the Rebels currently rank No. 15 in the Rivals.com 2014 team rankings.
It's not a top five ESPN ranking like the Rebels ended up with in 2013, but it's a damn good start.
The Rebels completed a remarkable 7-6 turnaround campaign in 2012, including Egg Bowl and BBVA Compass Bowl wins, on the heels of 2-10 and 4-8 seasons the two years prior. However, wins over Mississippi State and Pitt weren't what that led consensus 5-star recruits like DE Robert Nkemdiche (the top overall prospect by ESPN), WR Laquon Treadwell, OT Laremy Tunsil and S Tony Conner to ink with Ole Miss.
Teams that go 13-24 over three-year spans must be able to attract top talent in different ways (go ahead skeptics, insert comments about cash, cars and women here), and the Rebels were able to do just that. Having shown the recruiting prowess he has in just over a year on the job, Freeze could likely also sell ice to an Eskimo.
Ultimately, these players (and their families) were sold on a winning program vision by a passionate, committed father figure of a coach named Hugh Freeze. Living in God's country alongside some of the most beautiful coeds on the planet was simply icing on the cake for these high school phenoms.
Additionally, it should go without saying that top talent desires to play with top talent. Undoubtedly, WR Treadwell's commitment ahead of national signing day in 2013 helped sway fellow 5-star athletes Nkemdiche, Tunsil and Conner to eventually don the red and blue this past February.
This theory is by far the most important right now, as Freeze, Chris Kiffin and Co. work on the 2014 class: land one big fish and let others follow.
With the verbal commitments of 4-star talent like Bauer, Buford, Gates and Hampton, the Rebels are inching that much closer to landing a true headliner for 2014. Treadwell was the first domino to fall in this year's class, and it'll be interesting to see who that player becomes for the upcoming class.
Not a question of "if," instead it's only a matter of "when" the Rebs will land the first big fish for 2014.
As great as the turnaround season was for Ole Miss in 2012, greater possibilities exist this year. Not only does the team return nearly every significant starter (minus RB/WR Randall Mackey), but players also benefit from now having a year of experience under their belts with the new coaching staff.
While the Rebels finished with six regular-season wins last season, they blew second-half leads against Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and LSU. If they'd have hung on in just two of the contests, Ole Miss would have entered bowl season with eight wins in hopes of finding a ninth in the postseason.
In hindsight, an eight- or nine-win season in Freeze's inaugural year as head Rebel could have set the bar far too high for year two of the Freeze regime. As hard as the A&M, Vandy and LSU games were to stomach for Ole Miss fans, the losses may have been somewhat serendipitous in the long run.
Now, a veteran group merges with an incredibly gifted incoming freshmen class. Having first tasted college success last year, returning Rebels will be hungrier than ever. As for the epic class of freshman recruits, their dominance in high school likely sends them to Oxford not knowing any better than to "expect" to win from day one. Innocence is bliss, young Rebs, innocence is bliss.
On Thursday, August 29, Ole Miss football will be at the front and center of the college football universe. In fact, it's as important of a game to the Rebel program as any in recent memory.
If Ole Miss can sneak past a talented Commodore club that evening (in front of a national ESPN audience), the stage will be set for Ole Miss to begin serious pursuit of coveted 5-star recruits across the nation. Not only will high school prospects tune in August 29 to see what type of team the Rebs will field in 2013, but they'll also be looking to see the raw emotions and excitement of top recruits in this year's class.
Whether on the sidelines jumping around or potentially making game-changing plays from day one of their Ole Miss careers, the on-the-field vibe of the incoming freshman class will have a tremendous impact on way current high school talent views what's taking shape at Ole Miss.
With a win, a confident Rebel club would head home for a game with Southeast Missouri State (SEMO) the following weekend before making back-to-back road trips to Texas and Alabama.
Without delving too much into each of those road contests, a win in Austin or Tuscaloosa would cement the Rebels ascent to national prominence in the minds of top recruits and their families across the nation. Further, it would finally silence most naysayers and skeptics outside of Rebel country.
After Ole Miss travels to the Plains for a tilt with Auburn on October 5, the Rebels won't play a game outside of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium again until the regular-season finale Egg Bowl on Thanksgiving night. They will play six home games in seven weeks, with an open week sandwiched in the middle.
Within the lengthy home stretch (including enormous games against Texas A&M and LSU), rest assured Freeze and Co. will do their very best to ensure top recruits schedule visits on similar weekends. It happened in January with the 2013 recruiting class, but just imagine if multiple 5-star recruits are scheduled for visits together when Texas A&M or LSU visit Oxford?
Between experiencing a truly electric campus and game-day environment, sharing experiences with current Rebels that were 5-star recruits and potentially witnessing upset wins over the Aggies or Bayou Bengals, program-building verbal commitments could come in fast and furious.
To sum it all up, the pieces to the puzzle for landing another top-notch recruiting class are in the hands of Rebel coaches, players and even fans that have helped generate program buzz.
The Rebels were the talk of national signing day last year, and they may well be again in 2014.
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