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2016 SEC season preview: Ole Miss Rebels

Ole Miss has built up serious momentum from the past two seasons, but with the mass talent departures and an NCAA cloud hanging over Oxford, can they sustain the success?

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Memphis Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Record Last Year: 10-3 (6-2 SEC)

Key Departure: DT Robert Nkemdiche, OT Laremy Tunsil, WR Laquon Treadwell, LB CJ Johnson, DB Trae Elston, DB Mike Hilton, WR Cod Core, RB Jaylen Walton

Key Arrivals: OT Greg Little, QB Shea Patterson, DL Benito Jones, DB Deontay Anderson

What happened last year

Ole Miss entered 2015 with a new quarterback in Chad Kelly and the hope to build off of the momentum of 2014. The Rebels offense proved to be even more explosive with Kelly at the helm. The Rebs, in the first two weeks of the season, put up 76 and 73 points against UT Martin and Fresno State, respectively, boasting the most potent offense in the country heading to Tuscaloosa. The Rebels hadn’t won at Bryant-Denny Stadium since 1988 and had never won in consecutive season against the Tide. By way of five Alabama turnovers and the spirits in the sky resulting into a Quincy Adeboyejo touchdown, the Rebels never trailed, leading by as much as 19, on way to an upset of the second ranked Tide.

The nation sang their praises for a week, naming Chad Kelly a Heisman trophy contender and viewing the team as playoff and national title contenders. The Rebels, as could have been predicted, hit a slog the following week versus Vanderbilt, pulling out an 11 point victory after trailing in the second half. Sitting at number three in the polls, Ole Miss traveled to the Swamp against a newly ranked Florida team, who many still didn’t know what to think of. The Gators ambushed them, winning 38-10 and leveling the Rebels in the West standings. A homecoming 52-3 beatdown of New Mexico State was followed up by a head-scratching 13 point loss at Liberty Bowl at the hands of Paxton Lynch and Memphis, where Robert Nkemdiche was lost early with a concussion. The loss to the old rival all but eliminated the Rebels chances of a playoff berth that seemed certain after defeating ‘Bama for a second straight time.

Wins versus Texas A&M and at Auburn gave Ole Miss the upper hand at representing the West in Atlanta, holding tiebreaker over Alabama. In overtime against Arkansas, the Razorbacks converted a 4th and 25 on a backwards-lateral throw by Hunter Henry picked up by Alex Collins for a first down. Brandon Allen sealed the victory, scoring on a two-point conversion to thwart the Rebels plans of heading to Atlanta. Ole Miss would close out the season with a dominating win over LSU at home and a road victory in the Egg Bowl. A season of ups and downs and what could have beens ended with a trip to New Orleans for the programs first Sugar Bowl appearance since 1963. Hugh Freeze and his program earned a program-defining win in a night Ole Miss fans won’t soon forget. The Rebels appeared to be on their way to sustained relevance in the SEC West.

3 Key Players

NCAA Football: Sugar Bowl-Oklahoma State vs Mississippi Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Chad Kelly – Kelly is the unquestioned best quarterback in the SEC. Last season, Kelly came to Oxford with a checkered background. The nephew of Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly, was dismissed from Clemson in the spring of 2014 following conduct detrimental to the team. Kelly landed In Scooba, MS at East Mississippi Community College, highlighted in the Netflix series Last Chance U. Like his predecessor Bo Wallace, Kelly thrived at the junior college level and found his way into the starting position in Oxford. In 2015, Kelly showed why he was once an Under Armor All-American, setting several program single-season records, including in total yards (4,542), passing yards (4,042), passing touchdowns (31), and completion percentage (65.1). Despite the big numbers Kelly put up he did struggle taking care of the ball at times, throwing 13 interceptions on the season. Given the question marks in the running game and on the offensive line it will be paramount for Kelly to cut down on his turnover rate from a year ago. For Ole Miss to have any chance at staying atop of the West, Kelly will likely have to be even better than he was in 2015.

Mississippi State v Mississippi Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Tony Conner – One of the major signings of Freeze’s blockbuster 2013 recruiting class returns to Oxford after missing several games with a meniscus tear in 2015. Conner, playing at the Huskie position in Dave Wommack’s defense, brings a physical presence that the ‘Landshark’ defense that will need his experience to show out after seeing mass departures from the unit this offseason. Conner, when healthy, has played at an All-American and All-SEC level, as he showed in 2013 and 2014. Conner’s leadership will be looked upon this year as he looks to solidify the identity of the ‘Landsharks’.

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Auburn Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

Akeem Judd – Ole Miss has serious question marks upfront on the offensive line after losing all five starters. The return of center Robert Conyers, who started 5 games last season prior to a season-ending injury, and the entry of top-rated offensive line recruit Greg Little, should allow the Rebels to see only a slight drop in production. The issue still remains at running back. The news of Jordan Wilkins being ruled academically ineligible put an even larger concern within that position group. The losses of both Jaylen Walton and Wilkins, makes Judd the leading returning rusher (421) from 2015. Judd had a strong spring and was expected to share carries with Wilkins. Now, the senior out of Durham, NC, will receive the lion share of the carries until redshirt freshman Eric Swinney is ready to enter the fold. For Ole Miss to compete at a high-level, again in the West, the production of Judd will be vital.

Best Case Scenario

9-3 (6-2 SEC) —- The Rebels have made history the past two seasons, ending each with an appearance in a New Years’ Six bowl. Despite, beating Alabama in consecutive years the Rebels have found a way not to represent the West in the SEC title game, instead watching the Tide do so and go on to the playoff. Ole Miss opens the season on Labor Day night in Orlando in a neutral-site match-up with fourth ranked Florida State. A win over the Seminoles would cement their case for a possible playoff berth early. More importantly, a third straight win would put the Rebels on track to go to Atlanta for the first time in their history.

Getting Alabama and an East crossover game with Georgia at home helps, but the season will come down to October road trips to Fayetteville and Baton Rouge. A trip to College Station also looms late in the year with a trap game at Vanderbilt sandwiched between it and the Egg Bowl. I’m hard pressed to believe that Ole Miss is going to beat both LSU and Alabama, while also defeating an Arkansas team, that has given them fits over the years, on the road. Not to mention adding Georgia from the East to the schedule. Best case scenario, Kelly improves upon his numbers from 2016 cutting down on his turnovers and even without a consistent running game, is able to lead the Rebels to another win over LSU or Bama. Ole Miss then will hope to work their way into a three-way tie. Tiebreakers falling their way, the Rebs earn a trip to Atlanta for a chance at their first SEC Championship since 1963 and another New Year’s Six bowl appearance.

Worst Case Scenario

6-6 (3-5 SEC) —- The schedule-makers gave Ole Miss no breaks in September. The “neutral” site game versus Florida State in Orlando is anything but. The Rebels could very well struggle against a talented defensive front from FSU and find themselves on the wrong end of a crooked score. A date with Wofford would alleviate the bad taste leftover from Labor Day, but an angry Alabama kicks the teeth in of the Rebels the next week. Georgia, with the two-headed monster of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, run all over the Landshark defense; finding Ole Miss at 1-3 entering October. At 1-3, with an ongoing NCAA investigation, Ole Miss punts on the season and waves the white flag, placing the program on a postseason ban in a cry for mercy from the suits in Indianapolis.

Prediction for 2016

8-4 (5-3 SEC) —- Can the Rebels keep up the momentum built up from past two seasons? Losing three first-round NFL draft picks typically doesn’t point to another 10-win season, but based on how Freeze and his staff have recruited the hit shouldn’t be as hard. Florida State is a legitimate national championship contender and a little bit more talented and experienced than the Rebs. I don’t think anyone out there thinks that there’s any way that Alabama losses a third straight year to the Rebels. Then again, few believe that the Rebels would pull off each of the past two wins. The Georgia game will either swing the pendulum of the season toward SEC West contention or towards a tailspin to the bottom of the division. I have a hard time seeing Ole Miss finish anywhere other than 2-2 heading into October. Revenge against a Paxton Lynch-less Memphis should be guaranteed. October road trips at Arkansas and LSU won’t be easy but a split coming in Fayetteville should be the case. After a 3-4 start, Ole Miss should cruise down the stretch only tripping up in College Station. The trend of surging records should come to an end.