It has been an up-and-down decade for the Ole Miss Rebels since the departure of star quarterback Eli Manning. The two-time Super Bowl MVP led the Rebels to their last 10-win season in 2003, but it might finally be time for the program to hit double digits once again in 2014.
Ole Miss has made a steady climb under Hugh Freeze, turning Houston Nutt's 2-10 swan song in 2011 to a 7-6 2012-13 campaign and an 8-5 finish last year.
The Rebels are bringing back nearly their entire defense from that squad, as well as several key offensive playmakers, but the best place to start is the return of senior quarterback Bo Wallace.
Wallace threw for 3,346 yards and added another 355 on the ground while accounting for 24 touchdowns last year. He wasn't perfect, but his leadership and experience will be invaluable for the Rebels next year.
He'll be without his top target Donte Moncrief, who left after an outstanding junior year and recently shined at the NFL combine. While Moncrief's 938 yards will have to be replaced next year, the cupboard is far from bare.
Laquon Treadwell will come back to lead the receiving corps after recording a team-high 72 receptions for 608 yards and five touchdowns as a freshman. Tight end Evan Engram will be back as well after a remarkable freshman campaign. Vince Sanders will return also after coming on strong late in the 2013-14 campaign.
That trio will be joined by a promising newcomer, 4-star All-American receiver Markell Pack.
Pack, who flipped his commitment from Florida State to Ole Miss, could contribute immediately. He was one of the headliners of the Rebels' strong class, along with 247Sports Composite 4-star guard Roderick Taylor.
Taylor could see the field right away in what will be really the only position of need in Oxford. Mississippi will need to replace a few starters up front, though two key pieces—Laremy Tunsil and Aaron Morris—will be back.
|Ole Miss Key Offensive Returners/Newcomers|
|Player||2013 Stats/Recruit Rankings|
|QB Bo Wallace||3,701 total YDS, 24 total TD|
|RB I'Tavius Mathers||646 YDS, 3 TD (all-purpose)|
|RB Jaylen Walton||1,306 YDS, 8 TD (all-purpose)|
|WR Laquon Treadwell||608 YDS, 5 TD (rec)|
|WR Vince Sanders||325 YDS, 1 TD (rec)|
|TE Evan Engram||268 YDS, 3 TD (rec)|
|WR Markell Pack||4-star, No. 20 WR, No. 133 OVR, No. 3 MS|
|OL Roderick Taylor||4-star, No. 2 OG, No. 47 OVR, No. 1 MS|
|Stats: OleMissSports.com, Recruit Rankings: 247Sports Composite|
That group will be leading the way for a proven pair of running backs. I'Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton will be back as juniors after combining for 1,086 rushing yards and nine touchdowns on the ground a season ago.
The road for Ole Miss won't be an easy one, but looking around the Southeastern Conference, it could certainly be worse.
|Ole Miss 2014 Football Schedule|
|Aug. 28||Boise State||Atlanta|
|Sept. 13||Louisiana-Lafayette||Oxford, Miss.|
|Sept. 27||Memphis||Oxford, Miss.|
|Oct. 4||Alabama||Oxford, Miss.|
|Oct. 11||Texas A&M||College Station, Texas|
|Oct. 18||Tennessee||Oxford, Miss.|
|Oct. 25||LSU||Baton Rouge, La.|
|Nov. 1||Auburn||Oxford, Miss.|
|Nov. 8||Presbyterian||Oxford, Miss.|
|Nov. 22||Arkansas||Fayetteville, Ark.|
|Nov. 29||Mississippi State||Oxford, Miss.|
Boise State will be waiting Week 1 in Atlanta, and a trip to Vanderbilt looms next week. The Rebels will have tough road trips to LSU and Texas A&M, but they'll host Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee and Mississippi State.
While the return of Wallace and several playmakers will be key against that slate, Ole Miss' biggest strength will be on the defensive side.
The Rebels return almost their entire defense, including a defensive front led by Robert Nkemdiche, Issac Gross and D.T. Shackelford, who was granted an additional season of eligibility. That trio combined for 24.5 tackles for a loss and 7.5 sacks last year.
At linebacker, Serderius Bryant and Denzel Nkemdiche should be the leaders of the entire defense. Bryant led the Rebels with 78 tackles, including 12.5 for a loss, three sacks and three forced fumbles.
While the front six (Ole Miss runs a 4-2-5 scheme) looks to be in great shape, off-the-field issues could end up changing a lot. Hugh Kellenberger of The Clarion-Ledger detailed the recent arrest of Bryant and Denzel Nkemdiche, as well as the civil lawsuit that has been raised against both of the Nkemdiche brothers:
The bad news is piling up for Ole Miss football.
A civil suit seeking $2 million in damages was filed Friday in Lafayette County Circuit Court by a plaintiff alleging Denzel Nkemdiche, Robert Nkemdiche and five unnamed football players beat him unconscious about a year ago.
The news broke Tuesday, a day after Denzel Nkemdiche and teammate Serderius Bryant were suspended for weekend arrests. Nkemdiche was cited with disorderly conduct (failure to comply with a police officer) and disturbing the peace.
Depending on how those issues play out, the Mississippi defense could go from formidable to a major question mark.
Regardless, that shouldn't impact the Rebels' secondary, which will be led by All-American safety Cody Prewitt, who brought down six interceptions a season ago. Next to him will be Tony Conner, who was third on the squad in tackles and logged a pick of his own as a freshman last year.
The Ole Miss defense was young last year but still finished seventh in the SEC in scoring and total defense. With some added experience, it could be one of the conference's best units.
Looking solely at returning players, the Rebels are as well off as any team in the conference.
If they can clean up their issues off the field, they'll be in excellent shape to hit the 10-win mark or at the very least, continue their improvement and hit nine wins in the third year under Freeze.