Through mid-October of 2014, you could argue that Ole Miss was the best team in the country.
The Rebels pulled away late from eventual Fiesta Bowl winner Boise State 35-13. They blew out Vandy and UL-Lafayette before smothering what turned out to be a pretty good Memphis team 24-3. The big breakthrough came the week after with the 24-17 win over eventual Sugar Bowl participant Alabama, and the momentum continued with a 35-20 win over Texas A&M and a 34-3 domination of Tennessee. The offense had some problems, but the defense more than made up for it with consistently brilliant play.
It was the October 25 loss to LSU when things began to fall apart in a 10-7 loss. Bo Wallace had one of his worse Bad Bo games, including a goal line interception on the final offensive play when the staff had called a safer throw to help set up a field goal try. The team also lost Denzel Nkemdiche for the season, while other key players like Laremy Tunsil, Robert Nkemdiche, and Cody Prewitt emerged banged up. Ben Still played hurt after an MCL injury against Tennessee, which, when combined with Tunsil's bicep injury, left the offensive line struggling.
Next came the devastating game against Auburn when Laquon Treadwell lost the ball and his season on the goal line with a minute and a half to go. A blowout over Presbyterian couldn't lift the malaise, as the offense outgained Arkansas but also turned it over six times in a 30-0 loss. The fires of rivalry reignited the team for an Egg Bowl win, but a dismal showing from the offense and a highly motivated TCU team ended the season terribly with a 42-3 Peach Bowl loss.
I can't help but wonder how much the bowl loss is affecting the team's preseason projections. For instance, the SEC media picked the Rebels fifth in the division despite them finishing up third last year. If the season had ended just with that Egg Bowl win, then I think a lot of people would be higher on the team. No, the Peach Bowl wasn't pretty, but bowl games have zero predictive power.
The advanced stats loved Ole Miss last year, with its 50.1% F/+ rating actually topping 2013 national champ Florida State's 49.2%. The Rebels have nearly everyone back, and its injured stars are on track to be healthy for Week 1. What, exactly, is holding everyone back from taking this team seriously as a divisional and conference contender?
Part of it undoubtedly is the fact that the helmets say "Ole Miss", as the school hasn't been a consistent top quality program since the 1960s. A lot of it has to do with questions about quarterback.
Wallace may have won as many games as a starter as Eli Manning did (yes, really), but his play was uneven. In the running to replace him are three guys: Ryan Buchanan, Chad Kelly, and DeVante Kincade. Freeze said Buchanan was a slight leader out of spring practice, but most observers expect Kelly to eventually win the job. Kelly was a four-star signee at Clemson in 2012, but Dabo Swinney kicked him off the team after several incidents. He may have the most talent, although Buchanan was also a four-star recruit, but he is also the most volatile. Kincade is more known for his legs than his arm and might get what we'd call in 2007 a Wildcat package. The quarterback question is essential given that the team probably won't have a good running game, but a loaded wide receiver corps will help here.
If either Kelly or Buchanan can prove to be a more consistent quarterback than Wallace was (read: turn it over less than Wallace did), the next place to inspect would be the secondary. Senquez Golson and Prewitt were key parts of the excellent defense, and the team will miss them. There still are some good players back there like Trae Elston and Tony Connor, and some young guys like C.J. Hampton figure to step up. I'm not ready yet to say this year's defense will be as good as last year's—which was truly an elite unit when fully healthy—but it'll have a chance at it.
I guess the real question with Ole Miss, once you get past quarterback, is whether you think the team will be as unlucky this year as it was last year. Every team goes through injuries, but it seemed like every star on the team got banged up or went down at some point. About the only surefire future draft picks who didn't really get hurt, as far as I know, were Golson and Evan Engram.
If Ole Miss can keep its core healthy, it can play with anyone in the West. Last year the Rebels beat Alabama, were inches from beating Auburn, and were a bad Wallace decision from at least forcing overtime with LSU. And that was with the cavalcade of injuries and appearances from Bad Bo. Ole Miss had only one loss really get away from them; the preseason media pick for conference champ Auburn had three.
So many things that could go wrong did go wrong for the Rebels last year, and they still had a breakthrough nine-win season with a New Year's Six bowl appearance. With a kinder spin of the wheel of fortune, there's no telling where the ceiling for this team is.