Sports, Thrill of Victory

SEC Football Preview series: State of Mississippi edition

The 2014 season may have been the best ever for the state of Mississippi. Both Ole Miss and Mississippi State fielded some of its respective school’s best football in recent memory, and though it ultimately didn’t work out, both entered November with a shot at entering the College Football Playoff. Chris Lee outlines the prognosis of a similar follow-up for both teams in 2015.

Top-end talent gives Rebels hope

Laquon Treadwell led Ole Miss in receptions with 48 despite going out with a gruesome season-ending injury against  Auburn. PHOTO COURTESY OLE MISS ATHLETICS

Laquon Treadwell led Ole Miss in receptions with 48 despite going out with a gruesome season-ending injury against Auburn. PHOTO COURTESY OLE MISS ATHLETICS

Try this on for size: Ole Miss could potentially have four first-round NFL draft picks next spring in left tackle Laremy Tunsil, wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche and safety Tony Conner, with the first three perhaps going in the top 10. Now, the mock drafts you see now are likely going to vary a lot from what happens next year—I’ve seen a lot of “first-rounders” fall to the middle rounds, and some, out of the draft entirely—but all four were majorly-hyped recruits when coach Hugh Freeze signed them, all have had good careers, and are considered good enough to forego their senior seasons.

On the other hand, Treadwell has to show he can recover from last year’s gruesome, season-ending knee injury, and that Tunsil’s eligibility is in a bit of question right now due to allegations of improper benefits and involvement with agents.

Let’s presume that all goes well with Treadwell and Tunsil, and that everyone’s as good as advertised this fall. How many teams with that kind of talent aren’t ranked in the top 10? The Rebels don’t appear there in most reputable preseason magazines, and may not be in the polls, either.

So, here’s the question: are the Rebels being disrespected because the name on their jersey is “Ole Miss?” Or are there legitimate questions about how good Ole Miss really is?

A bit of both, I think.

Here’s the case for Ole Miss. The Rebels, by Phil Steele’s count, return 16 starters and 57 lettermen. The first figure ranks Ole Miss just inside the top 20 nationally, and the second, just inside the top 10. Continuity on the offensive line is huge; the Rebels return every single starter there, plus a returning second-team All-American tight end in Evan Ingram. Freeze is also highly-regarded as an offensive coach.

Ole Miss may have an even better case on defense. The Rebels return seven starters from the No. 1 scoring defense (16.0 points per game) last year. When Ole Miss played well defensively, it was unbeatable: just ask Alabama, which took a 23-17 loss in Oxford a year ago.

Now, for the bad news.

After inking a $4 million per year contract extension Hugh Freeze will be at the helm in Oxford for at least another four years. PHOTO COURTESY OLE MISS ATHLETICS

After inking a $4 million per year contract extension Hugh Freeze will be at the helm in Oxford for at least another four years. PHOTO COURTESY OLE MISS ATHLETICS

Part of that success was due to second-team All-American safety Cody Prewitt and first-team All-American cornerback Senquez Golston. Both are gone to pursue NFL careers. The points-per-game numbers may have been a bit of a fluke; 12 teams gave up fewer yards than the Rebels, and Ole Miss gave up 35 to Auburn, 30 to Arkansas and 42 to TCU in the five-game stretch to end the season.

The problems on offense may be bigger than that. Chad Kelly, presumably the quarterback now that Bo Wallace’s three-year reign as starter is done, is talented. He’s also a knucklehead. After one off-field matter after another, Clemson kicked him out of its program last spring. He was then arrested on nine misdemeanor charges following a December bar fight. It won’t affect his eligibility—or at least not unless there’s another incident, and given his history, that’s not out of the question—but is that the kind of guy want as your leader behind center?

Also, the Rebels haven’t mounted a consistent running game under Freeze, though the team’s two leading rushers (Jaylen Walton, Jordan Wilkins) both return.

Now, for my take: Ole Miss has been slightly underrated for three years running. It’s hard to imagine an SEC team with four potential first-round picks being left out of the top 10 if, say, it were Alabama, Auburn or LSU. The pre-Halloween portion of the schedule, excepting Alabama, is quite favorable. As for the Kelly situation, that could obviously blow up on Freeze in a heartbeat. But if it doesn’t, Freeze managed nicely with Wallace, who was never a world-beater for his career, anyway. As for the running game, Freeze has always managed okay in spite of not having much of one.

Should Kelly develop into something better than Wallace, the Rebels enter their Halloween game at Auburn with a chance to make the magic it missed out on a year ago with their November swoon. My guess is that Ole Miss finishes somewhere in the top four of the West, maybe even as high as second.

Can State survive massive personnel losses?

All eyes will be on Heisman Trophy contender Dak Prescott to see if he can take the Bulldogs back to the top of the SEC West. PHOTO COURTESY MISSISSIPPI STATE ATHLETICS

All eyes will be on Heisman Trophy contender Dak Prescott to see if he can take the Bulldogs back to the top of the SEC West. PHOTO COURTESY MISSISSIPPI STATE ATHLETICS

If you paid attention to how Mississippi State improved in the last half of 2013, and noticed how much MSU had coming back for ‘14—16 returning starters, 57 returning lettermen, according to Steele—the fact that the Bulldogs had an excellent last fall was no surprise.

The problem is that if you consider those same things for 2015, the outlook isn’t as rosy.

State has only seven starters returning this year; only three teams in the country bring back fewer starters. The offensive line also lost four of its six starters if you include the tight end position. Also, the Bulldogs lost three of their last four games, which included back-to-back, 14-point defeats to Ole Miss and Georgia Tech.

Hopes wil be pinned on two things: Dak Prescott, and the fact that the Bulldogs were pretty deep a year ago. While a lot of those starters are gone, many of their back-ups were talented and got meaningful experience. Running back Josh Robinson (1,203 yards) is in the NFL, but there’s confidence in a committee of backs to get the job done. MSU’s two leading receivers, De’Runnya Wilson and Fred Ross, are talented and both return. The offensive line (again, including tight end) starts five juniors and a senior.

As for Prescott, he was a Heisman Trophy contender late last year for a reason. He threw for nearly 3,500 yards and just missed 1,000 rushing. The thought last year was that Prescott, who’d never been a full-time starter, was just starting to scratch the surface of his potential then.

Dan Mullen had Mississippi State ranked No. 1 in the nation last season. PHOTO COURTESY MISSISSIPPI STATE ATHLETICS

Dan Mullen had Mississippi State ranked No. 1 in the nation last season. PHOTO COURTESY MISSISSIPPI STATE ATHLETICS

New defensive coordinator Manny Diaz has his work cut out. Only three starters return, however, defensive tackle Chris Jones—a reserve last season—is potentially a first-team All-SEC and first-round NFL pick. Tennessee native Will Redmond, a cornerback, was a preseason fourth-team All-American by Steele.

But, the depth may not be there as it was a year ago. Plus, the Bulldogs, while giving up 21.7 points a year ago, gave up 424 yards a game last year. If MSU gives up that many again, that point-per-game total almost certainly rises also.

Optimism is high in Starkville. Some people whom I respect who cover the program that think there won’t be much of a drop-off this season; I think MSU could be a top-25 team in terms of talent. The issue is that the Bulldogs play in the SEC West, where everyone has that kind of talent, plus, more experience.

For those reasons, I think State is likely to finish as one of the bottom two teams in the league along with Texas A&M, though I wouldn’t be floored if things worked out better than that.