For all the talk of how good a season Hugh Freeze had during his first tour of duty in Oxford -- and it was a great year considering the starting point -- there's been relatively little talk of how close Ole Miss came to a truly special inaugural season in the Iceman Era. Because while the Rebels' seven-win season was impressive enough, they came 13 points away from a 10-win campaign.
That, almost more than the actual wins and losses, is what should power the optimism about what Freeze can do now. Ole Miss lost to Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and LSU by a combined 10 points (add one additional point in each game to get the win, and that's where the 13-point figure comes from). The only blowouts or sizable losses came in the 35-point home annihilation against Texas -- in the third game of the season -- and defeats against the two teams that played in the SEC Championship Game. Not shabby.
And Ole Miss did that without doing any one thing particularly well. The Rebels were most mediocre across the board, ranking higher than fifth in the SEC in just two categories: Sacks and tackles for loss. And it's pretty good to be second in the league in sacks and first in the league in tackles for loss in the SEC, given the kinds of defensive lines that reside in Tuscaloosa and Gainesville and Columbia, but that can only take you so far on its own.
The good news is that the offense, which picked up some steam at the end of the year after an up-and-down start, should be pretty explosive next year. Bo Wallace and Donte Moncrief will be back, and Jeff Scott said recently that he would return for his senior season. That's your quarterback, leading receiver and leading rusher from the 2012 squad, which is a pretty good way to start the offseason. But now Freeze has to do the hard part.
That hard part is recruiting. Having abandoned the "assemble a battalion" recruiting methods of the Houston Nutt Era -- that's more Texas A&M's thing in 2013 -- Ole Miss still ranks No. 18 in recruiting nationwide, according to Rivals and No. 20 according to Scout. Which is pretty good, until you realize that those rankings put them ninth and eighth in the SEC, respectively.
By contrast, in 2011, the final full recruiting class of the Houston Nutt regime, the Rebels were 19th and 20th, or eighth in the conference in both surveys. (Rivals lists Texas A&M and Missouri in its rankings for that year, while Scout doesn't, but the fact that both come in below Ole Miss in Rivals means it probably isn't that much of a factor.) And while you can go too far in viewing recruiting as destiny, it's an awfully important part of what Freeze is going to have to do to put Ole Miss back on the map.
Which doesn't take away from what Freeze and his team did in 2012. It just means that if they want to take the next step in 2013 and beyond, there's still a lot of work to be done on the field and off.