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14 for '14: Ole Miss Calibrates Expectations

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This year will tell us a lot about the future of Rebel football.

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

If anyone knows one thing about Hugh Freeze, besides his association with The Blind Side and Michael Oher, it's that he's a good recruiter. His top-ten class of 2013 was full of splashy signings, and his 2014 haul, while not quite as highly ranked due to being smaller, was still among the best in the country.

Even so, Freeze is not likely to recruit his way to glory any time soon.

That star-studded '13 class that basically represents the peak of what he'll realistically do—and even then, it'll only happen sometimes—was fourth in the conference and third in the division. The 2014 class is a more representative level of what he'll do most years, give or take, and it was eighth in the conference and fifth in the division.

Sooner or later, Freeze is going to have to prove himself to be just as good a coach as he is a recruiter. He's clearly ahead of the school's last ace recruiter Ed Orgeron, who assembled enough good players to make Houston Nutt a two-time Cotton Bowl winner but couldn't coach his way out of the backseat of a Hummer.

But is Freeze good enough to get Ole Miss to its first ever SEC Championship Game? Texas A&M is the only other SEC West team that's never been, and it has a decent enough excuse.

Looking at things a year ago, we see a Rebel team that was inconsistent yet promising. It finished just one game better at 8-5 than Freeze's 7-6 initial campaign, but the circumstances were quite a bit different. The team wasn't competitive in three of its losses in 2012; it cut that to one in 2013. There is no shame in getting outgunned by Johnny Manziel, nor is there in losing to an eventual national title participant by eight. The Rebels reversed 2012 losses by beating Vandy and Texas—both on the road, no less—and picked up a signature win by edging out LSU. The only real bummer in the season was losing the Egg Bowl, albeit in overtime.

We'll know a lot about the state of the program by seeing if it escapes September at 4-0 or not. Boise State (neutral, Atlanta) and Vanderbilt (road again) are both breaking in new head coaches. The former is not what it used to be, and the latter is due for something of a rebuilding year. Win those two, and it's ULL-bye-Memphis to give three weeks to prepare for a home game against Alabama. Depending on how they win those four, the Rebels might even become a trendy upset pick if the Tide doesn't look sharp against West Virginia and/or Florida.

But if Ole Miss drops one of those first two, the questions will come out about whether Freeze is more than just a recruiter. He'll have 10 or 11 more games to make more statements on that matter, of course, but we should be seeing real progress by this season. More than anything this season will calibrate expectations going forward.

Given the rough decade between Eli Manning and Freeze, with those two Cotton Bowls being the only highlights, I am in no way saying that the seat in Oxford will get hot if the team wins seven or eight games again. But if it does win seven or eight again, particularly if one of those is not the Egg Bowl, then a lot of the excitement that's been around the program will begin to dissipate. You could do a lot worse than that, but I think a lot were hoping for more with Freeze.

We'll see.