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2017 SEC Football Season Preview: Ole Miss Rebels

With a new head coach, new coordinators and a new quarterback, the Rebels look to try to stabilize during a season with a self-imposed bowl ban

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

Record Last Year

5-7 (2-6 SEC)

Key Returnees

QB Shea Patterson, QB/TE Jason Pellerin, RB Jordan Wilkins, RB Eric Swinney, RB Eugene Brazley, WR AJ Brown, WR Van Jefferson, WR DaMarkus Lodge, WR D.K. Metcalf, WR Markell Pack, OL Javon Patterson, OL Jordan Sims, OL Davonte Bouldin, OL Greg Little, OL Rod Taylor, OL Sean Rawlings, OL Alex Givens, DE Marquis Haynes, DE Garrald McDowell, DT Benito Jones, DT Breeland Speaks, LB DeMarquis Gates, LB Detric Bing-Dukes, LB Willie Hibbler, LB Taylor Polk, S Myles Hartsfield, S Deontay Anderson, S CJ Hampton, S AJ Moore, S CJ Moore, CB Jalen Julius, CB Ken Webster, K Gary Wunderlich, P Will Gleason

Key Departures

HC Hugh Freeze, OC Dan Werner, DC Dave Wommack, WR Coach Grant Heard, DL Coach Chris Kiffin, ST/Safeties Coach Corey Batoon, QB Chad Kelly, RB Akeem Judd, WR Damor’ea Stringfellow, WR Quincy Adeboyejo, TE Evan Engram, C Robert Conyers, DE Fadol Brown, DE John Youngblood, DT Issac Gross, DT DJ Jones, LB Terry Caldwell, LB Rommel Mageo, LB Tamerio Strong, S Tony Conner, CB Tony Bridges, CB Carlos Davis, CB Derrick Jones, CB Kalio Moore

Key Arrivals

HC Matt Luke (promoted from OL Coach on an interim basis), OC Phil Longo, DC Wesley McGriff, OL Coach Jack Bicknell Jr., WR Coach Jacob Peeler, DL Coach Freddie Roach, LB Coach Bradley Dale Peveto, QB Jordan Ta’amu (JUCO), DE Ryder Anderson, DB D.D. Bowie, OL Ben Brown, LB Josh Clarke, LB Breon Dixon, LB Chester Graves, OL Tony Gray, DB Javien Hamilton (JUCO), WR Braylon Sanderes, LB Mohamed Sanogo, DB Kam’ron White, LB Brenden Williams (JUCO), DE Markel Winters (JUCO)


What Happened Last Year

After a season that started promisingly, the 2016 Ole Miss Rebles went off the tracks in October before going completely off the rails in November.

Despite early season-ending injuries to both Ken Webster and Eric Swinney in the first half against FSU in Orlando, the Rebels held a 28-6 lead in the first half. That lead would be squandered en route to a 45-34 defeat that was a microcosm of the season: Injuries, blown leads and disappointment.

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Florida State Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Following a routine win over FCS foe Wofford, Alabama came to Oxford. The Rebels jumped out to a 24-3 second quarter lead on the back of a 63-yard strike by Chad Kelly to Evan Engram for a touchdown and a forced fumble by Marquis Haynes, which was returned for a score by John Youngblood.

As previously eluded to, that lead would not last. The Crimson Tide scored two touchdowns in the last 130 seconds of the first half to draw within a touchdown. Alabama would pour it on to go out to a 48-30 lead before an Ole Miss rally fell short. The Rebels dropped to 1-2 after the 48-43 loss.

They bounced back the following week by dominating Georgia 45-14. They dropped Memphis 48-28, but that would be the end of any success for the year.

A trio of SEC losses started with Arkansas coming from behind late in the fourth quarter (see a trend?). The Hogs were led by Rawleigh Williams’ 180 rushing yards. This would be a prelude to Leonard Fournette dominating the Rebels’ defense to the tune of 284 yards in a 38-21 loss to LSU (which was tied at halftime).

The terrible month of October for Hugh Freeze’s squad wrapped up with a 40-29 loss to Auburn, in which the Rebels did the trifecta of a) squandering a 500-yard total yardage day from Chad Kelly, b) yielding a career-high 236 rushing yards to Kamryn Pettway and c) (you guessed it:) blowing a fourth quarter lead.

Unfortunately for Ole Miss, that 465 passing yard-day would be the last full game that Chad Kelly would play. A knee injury the next week during a lackluster game against Georgia Southern ended Kelly’s season and career in Oxford. Kelly amassed more than 7,500 total yards in less than 23 games.

The coaching staff wasseemingly not enthralled with the possibility of Jason Pellerin leading the team through the final three games of the season. Needing to win a pair of games to be bowl eligible, the discussion all week leading up to the Texas A&M game was whether Shea Patterson, the top ranked freshman quarterback (per Rivals, 247 and Scout), would have his redshirt pulled with only three games remaining in the season.

Patterson did come out as the starter against Texas A&M and lived up to the hype while leading the Rebels back from a 21-6 fourth quarter deficit. He showed off some Johnny Manziel-esque moves en route to a 29-28 victory.

With games against Vanderbilt and Mississippi State remaining and victory over one of them needed to gain bowl eligibility, Ole Miss fans felt assured that Ole Miss would continue its bowling streak under Hugh Freeze. And yet, the A&M win would be the last of the Freeze Era in Oxford. The team looked unprepared and unmotivated in both of their final two games and the season ended with the thud of a 35-point loss at home to Mississippi State.

That loss and the season in general led to wholesale changes by Freeze on both sides of the ball. Offensive coordinator Dan Werner was forced out and defensive coordinator Dave Wommack retired. Freeze hired Phil Longo from Sam Houston State as offensive coordinator and brought back former defensive backs coach Wesley McGriff from Auburn as defensive coordinator.

The biggest change would come late in the summer after SEC Media Days as, despite years of NCAA investigation, the Freeze tenure came to an end due to what athletic director Ross Bjork described as a “concerning pattern,” which has subsequently been linked to escort services.


Key Players... and People

1. Matt Luke

Matt Luke steps into a role which he has probably (without over exaggeration) dreamed of as the Rebels’ (interim) head coach.

The former Ole Miss offensive lineman is an Ole Miss legacy and has spent nine years as an assistant in Oxford while also spending time at Tennessee and Duke. His father, brother and nephew have all played for the Rebels and his brother Tom is an assistant athletic director for Ole Miss.

With a self-imposed bowl ban and a team in a bit of a rebuilding year prior to the departure of Freeze, the expectations for Luke should not be off the charts. He likely will not get the job on a permanent basis, but he can make a major step in his career if he shows the ability to keep this year’s team focused on the field and playing with passion.

2. Shea Patterson

Nine games into the 2016 season, Patterson thought he would be entering this season as a redshirt freshman quarterback. Instead, he enters with three games of starting experience under his belt.

After thriving while being thrown into the fire, struggling and then doing well in a game in which the entire team was overmatched, Patterson comes into 2017 as one of the offense’s leaders. Chad Kelly, Evan Engram, Akeem Judd and Robert Conyers all have departed. This leads to Patterson having to step up into a new role. With Longo looking to open up a high-octane offense and an experienced line in front of him, Patterson could be primed for a big year and may need to if the defense is not better than 2016.

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

3. Benito Jones and Breeland Speaks

Two years ago, Ole Miss’ defense rode dominant line play with Robert Nkemdiche, DJ Jones, Breeland Speaks, Fadol Brown and Marquis Haynes to the Sugar Bowl. With Haynes racking up seven sacks last year and returning for his senior season, one side of the defensive line is solid.

Up the middle, Speaks looks to bounce back after having a rough 2016 season. The junior had 10 combined tackles early in the season against Alabama and Georgia, but his productivity lagged as the season went on. Jones, a sophomore, found significant time as a freshman and should be a full-time starter in 2017.

If Jones and Speaks can emerge as a strong unit in the middle, it could help to take pressure off the weakest unit on the team at linebacker.


Best Case Scenario

10-2 (6-2 SEC)

The Rebels go on the road and beat Cal, the NCAA hearing is not a distraction and they gain confidence with a pair of close losses on the road at Alabama and Auburn before running the table.

Worst Case Scenario

4-8 (1-7 SEC)

A late night game in Berkeley goes wrong, blowout losses to Alabama and Auburn lead to the season going off the tracks.

Nonconference victories are picked up against South Alabama, UT-Martin and Louisiana-Lafayette. The run of games against Alabama, Auburn, Vanderbilt, LSU and Arkansas in consecutive weeks dooms the season.

Depth issues, particularly on defense become an issue as the season wears on and the lone SEC victory is picked up either at home against Vanderbilt or on the road at Kentucky.

Prediction

6-6 (2-6 SEC)

Ole Miss has one of the widest possible variances of any SEC team in results. The offense should be strong with an experienced offensive line led by former five-star left tackle Greg Little, quarterback Shea Patterson and the return of running back Jordan Wilkins.

The defense is a question mark with new defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff looking to resurrect what was a terrible defense while the special teams should be solid with the return of Gary Wunderlich and Will Gleason.

The nonconference slate is manageable with the road game at Cal being the biggest challenge, but they are in their own rebuilding mode.

The games against Vanderbilt and Kentucky offer the best opportunities for SEC wins, but the home game against Arkansas should not be overlooked as well.