Hugh Freeze's Ole Miss Rebels are capable of achieving a 10-win season in 2013. In fact, I'm actually predicting 10 wins for QB Bo Wallace and the boys this fall.
That's right, 10 wins (9-3 regular season and a bowl win).
Over the next 10 weeks, leading up to the Ole Miss opener at Vanderbilt (August 29), I'm going to break down the "10 Keys to 10 Wins" for the Johnny Rebs.
As the 10-part series debuts, it's important to first provide some frame of reference before delving into specific keys to notching double-digit wins in Year 2 of the Freeze regime.
Setting the Picture
Wins and Near Wins
Having posted seven wins under first-year head coach Hugh Freeze in 2012, Ole Miss eclipsed its win total from the previous two seasons combined (6-18). Largely under the national radar, Freeze pulled off one of the greatest turnarounds in the country.
Capturing six regular-season wins and a win over Pitt in the BBVA Compass Bowl was phenomenal.
That being said, the Rebels would have won even more ballgames if not for blowing second-half leads against Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and LSU. These weren't just blown leads to average teams. The final combined records of the Aggies, Commodores and Tigers was 30-9 (.769 winning percentage).
Had Ole Miss come out on top in just two of those contests, it would've finished with eight regular-season victories (9-3 with a bowl win). Remember, these same Rebels went 2-10 in 2011.
Starters, Reserves and Rookies
In terms of actual players, Freeze will see the return of nearly every significant starter from last season's squad minus RB/WR Randall Mackey, OG A.J. Hawkins, and a pair of tight ends that split time in 2012 (Ferbia Allen and Jamal Mosley).
It's on the defensive side of the ball that Rebel reserves will have to step up and replace the likes of DEs Jason Jones and E.J. Epperson, DT Gilbert Pena, LB Joel Kight and CB Wesley Pendleton.
Having that many returning starters is absolutely invaluable for a young team looking to turn the corner. And coaches were largely pleased with the quality of reserve work over spring camp. Between returning reserves looking to earn their stripes and highly talented, yet inexperienced true freshmen capable of contributing early on, it shouldn't take too long for the voids to be filled behind starters.
While Ole Miss opens the year on the road in four of its first five outings, after an October 5 trip to Jordan-Hare Stadium (Auburn) the Rebels won't play a road game again until Thanksgiving (Egg Bowl). Specifically, Ole Miss will play three consecutive home games on both sides of an open week.
Traveling to Texas and Alabama is a tough start to the season, but hosting Texas A&M and LSU later back-to-back in Oxford isn't a bad trade. It's safe to assume "revenge" will be on the minds of Rebels.
If Freeze finds his club no worse than 3-2 to start (hopefully better), then anything is possible at home.
"10 Keys to 10 Wins," No. 10: Survive the First 5
Moving into the "10 to 10" series, coming in as the 10th-most important factor in the quest for 10 Rebel wins this season is "Surviving the First Five."
In 2013, the Ole Miss Rebels play on the road in four of their first five games.
Festivities begin when the Rebels invade Vanderbilt on August 29. Not only will the Rebels open the season on ESPN's Thursday Night Football in front of a national audience, but they'll also take on a Commodore club that went 9-4 last season. These aren't your father's Commodores, kids.
It'll be a tough test for both clubs, as each tries to start the season out on a winning note.
A week later, the Grove will be hopping for the home opener with Southeast Missouri State (SEMO). The SEMO game should serve as a nice tune-up before the Rebels travel to Austin for a showdown with the Texas Longhorns.
Beginning with Texas on September 14, the Rebels will play three straight road games (Texas, Alabama and Auburn). The only breather they'll receive is an open week before traveling to Tuscaloosa.
Texas and Alabama, on the road, back-to-back?
That's a tough task for any team in the country, not to mention one that only plays a single home game until the middle of October (Texas A&M on October 12).
However, playing two traditional powerhouses like the Tide and Horns so early in the season will give the Rebels a chance to show the college football universe that they're for real. Imagine what an upset win would do for an already impressive 2014 recruiting class.
The Auburn trip to wrap up the first five sets up as a perfect trap game in between contests with Alabama and Texas A&M. Rebel coaches will put in extra work to make sure their kids aren't caught looking ahead to the home rematch with Johnny Football.
In the end, it's crucial that Ole Miss goes at least 3-2 in their first five, while 4-1 would be even better.
Not only would it keep the program's momentum rolling, but it would also allow the team to return home for back-to-back tilts with Texas A&M (October 12) and LSU (October 19) without feeling like they're must-win games.
As the first of a six-game homestand, the A&M game will set the tone for the second half of 2013. Believe it or not, a win over the Aggies would set the Rebels up with a chance to run the table during the second half of the season.
After an all-important battle with rival LSU, Ole Miss will play Idaho, Arkansas, Troy, Missouri and Mississippi State to conclude the year. Combined, these five teams went 23-38 in 2012 for only a .377 winning percentage.
If Freeze can lead his Rebels to a 4-1 record to begin 2013, including an upset win over Texas or Alabama, then the Rebels would literally control their own destiny for the rest of the season.
While a 3-2 start would make 10 wins a little tougher, the Rebels could still drop a game during their six-game homestand and finish the regular season 9-3.
The bottom line is Ole Miss won't play outside of Mississippi after taking on Auburn October 5 and will only leave Vaught-Hemingway Stadium once for a trip to Starkville.
Surviving the first five is key No. 10 to winning 10 games in 2013.
Next week, I'll unveil the next-most important factor. Stay tuned, Rebel Nation.