Ole Miss was the best team in college football for the first seven weeks of last season. They may not have been ranked number one, but their worst per-game percentile performance in that span was 94th percentile. I’m sorry, but there’s no argument I’ll accept that anybody was better than them from week one to seven. Then, injuries and devastating losses to Auburn and LSU derailed what could have been a truly special season for the Rebels. However, if the old saying about things not killing you making you stronger is true, and Chad “Swag” Kelly is as good as advertised then there’s no reason why Ole Miss can’t be a playoff team.
“Swag” will get the benefit of throwing to one of the top receiver groups in the country this season, assuming of course that he wins the starting job. Laquon Treadwell was having a fantastic season before it got cut short in one of the most gruesome ways possible against Auburn. As a matter of fact, he still led the team in targets and receptions despite missing the final four games of the season. Evan Engram, Cody Core, and Quincy Adeboyejo guarantee that you can’t just double team Treadwell and make the others beat you though, because they will. Engram is arguably the nation’s top tight end, and Cody Core went over 500 yards last season as the number three option in the passing game.
Future top-ten pick Laremy Tunsil headlines one of the conference’s top pass blocking lines. If this group can clear just a few more running lanes this season, then they will give the Rebels playmakers every opportunity they need to put up big numbers. The continuity up front should be a huge help, too. The Rebels return every lineman from the 2014 team who has ever started a game, and five linemen with 12 or more career starts. Three of those have over twenty career starts.
Those two components should provide an environment conducive to success for whoever ends up playing quarterback for the Rebels. I fully expect it to be “Swag”, but sophomores Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade have not officially been ruled out yet. Kelly, most famous for recording his own rap song about himself and being the nephew of Buffalo Bills’ legend Jim Kelly, threw for over 3,900 yards, 47 touchdowns and eight interceptions at East Mississippi Community College last season. Bo Wallace and his 10,000+ career yards won’t be easy to replace, but Kelly just might have the talent and the help around him to do it.
The biggest knock against Ole Miss in the Hugh Freeze era has been it’s relative inability to consistently run the football. Blame it on the scheme, the line or the backs if you want to, but ultimately it doesn’t matter who’s to blame all that matters is that you either can or can’t run the ball. With all of the line starters, and senior Jaylen Walton being very experienced having played a major role in the offense ever since stepping on campus, I fully expect the run game to improve at least marginally this season. Walton went for 586 yards and five touchdowns in 2014. Sophomore Jordan Wilkins is another guy I expect to have a big year. Wilkins is the first “power” running back the Rebels have had since Freeze took over, and with a true “thunder and lightning” aspect to the ground game the Rebels should have more success in 2015 than in previous seasons.
The list of future first round picks on this roster continues with defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche. Many of you may remember him as a former number one high school recruit in the country. His impact on the game doesn’t always show up in the stat books, but his ability to impact a game forces teams to scheme around him, and ultimately open up opportunities for other defenders. Sophomore Marquis Haynes was one of the people to take advantage of that the most last season racking up 7.5 sacks and forcing three fumbles in his freshman campaign.
Replacing Senquez Golson, who was second in the country with ten interceptions, and hard-hitting Cody Prewitt will be difficult, but that doesn’t mean that the Rebels don’t have the talent to do it. Mike Hilton, Tony Conner, and Trae Elston are a solid starting point at rover, nickelback and safety respectively. Conner was another top recruit out of high school powerhouse South Panola, and had 53.5 tackles, nine of which were for loss, last season.
Sophomore Kendarius Webster and juniors Tony Bridges and Tee Shepard will be the primary corners in the rotation, although Webster was the only one of the three to see the field last season. Webster recorded twenty tackles and two pass break-ups last season. Kailo Moore is another corner who should see plenty of action this season.
Linebacker is easily the unit on this defense hit the hardest with personnel losses in the offseason. D.T. Shackelford, Serderius Bryant and Keith Lewis were the leading three tacklers at linebacker last season, and all are gone. Denzel Nkemdiche should be ready to go in 2015 after breaking his ankle against LSU last season, costing him the remainder of 2014. Those familiar with this program know that the elder Nkemdiche was very much the leader of this defense, and his return to the field should improve the Rebels from a discipline and communication standpoint if nothing else. C.J. Johnson is another member of this defense who should have a big year. Look for Johnson to improve on his eight tackle for loss, four sack and one interception campaign from last season, and steadily rise up NFL draft boards in the process.
Prediction: 11-2 SEC West Champion and Sugar Bowl Appearance
Most prognosticators tend to think this division boils down to Alabama or Auburn, but I’m telling you that the Ole Miss Rebels will make their first conference title appearance in school history this season. Alabama, Auburn and LSU have owned this division for the last decade, but it’s someone else’s turn. I do think that Ole Miss will drop one of their two games in Alabama this season, considering they have to travel to both Tuscaloosa and Auburn this season. However, the remainder of the schedule is very manageable, and I think it sets up well that as long as they can at least split those two games they have a very good chance at the division. One of the biggest benefits is the fact that they avoid Georgia, Tennessee and Missouri from the East, but the Rebs still can’t fall asleep when they travel to “The Swamp” in early October.