Over the last decade, the Alabama Crimson Tide, the Auburn Tigers or the LSU Tigers have won the SEC West division nine out of the 10 years. Those three are the top contenders in the division once again in 2014, but this year, the Ole Miss Rebels can win the SEC West for the first time in school history.
Before Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze came to Oxford, the Rebels finished with a 2-10 record in 2011. Since then, Freeze has the Rebels on the rise, as they finished with a 7-6 record in 2012 and improved to 8-5 in 2013. With a number of personnel losses at LSU and Texas A&M, the Rebels have a great opportunity to win their first SEC West division title this season.
The Rebels’ strength is their prolific offense led by quarterback Bo Wallace, who is one of the best and most experienced quarterbacks in the SEC. Last season, Wallace threw for 3,346 yards with 18 touchdowns and completed 64.8 percent of his passes. He also added 539 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. Wallace led the Rebels to some big wins against the Texas Longhorns and over then No. 6-ranked LSU.
While Wallace needs to eliminate the mistakes in key moments, like in the Mississippi State game, he is poised for a huge senior season.
Wallace he has an abundance of weapons around him, such as sophomore receiver Laquon Treadwell and tight end Evan Engram. Treadwell, who was named the 2013 SEC Freshman of the Year, caught 72 balls for 608 yards and five touchdowns. With Treadwell moving from the slot receiver to the outside, expect to see his number increase even more in 2014.
In the first seven games last season, before suffering an ankle injury, Engram emerged as the Rebels’ big-play receiver. Now that the tight end is 100 percent healthy, Engram—along with Treadwell and Wallace—could make the Rebels one of the best passing offenses in the nation.
Not only do the Rebels have a potent passing game, but they also have a solid running game to keep the SEC defenses honest. Running backs I’Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton combined for 1,114 yards and nine touchdowns a season ago.
The Rebels also have one of the best left tackles in the nation in sophomore Laremy Tunsil, who earned SEC All-Freshman honors a season ago. He will have to help anchor an offensive line that has many question marks, including the health of left guard Aaron Morris.
On defense, Ole Miss has nine starters returning, including All-American safety Cody Prewitt and All-SEC linebacker Serderius Bryant.
Last season, Prewitt made 71 tackles and had six interceptions. Bryant was just as active as he racked up 78 tackles, 9.5 of them for a loss.
Defensive end C.J. Johnson, who was injured in 2013, should provide close to his 2012 numbers when he had 6.5 sacks and finished sixth in tackles for the Rebels with 55.
Moving Robert Nkemdiche from defensive end to defensive tackle late last season helped him improve his production. He is a more natural tackle because of his 280-pound frame, and he can use his strength and long arms to push offensive linemen off the ball.
The biggest reason Ole Miss could win the SEC West is its favorable schedule. Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State will all come to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Also, Ole Miss catches a break in SEC crossover play as it avoids Georgia, South Carolina, Florida and Missouri.
Ole Miss' game against the LSU Tigers on Oct. 25 will go a long way in determining if the Rebels are SEC West contenders. Ole Miss did defeat the Tigers last season and only lost to the Tigers by a touchdown or less in its last two trips to Tiger Stadium.
Freeze has had highly touted recruiting classes the last few seasons. So he can’t use the excuse that he doesn’t have the weapons to compete with Alabama, Auburn and LSU. With an experienced quarterback, excellent talent on offense and a skilled defense, there are plenty of reasons for optimism in Oxford, Mississippi, this season.
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