2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: Hugh Freeze took over a two-win team heading into his first season with the Ole Miss Rebels in 2012 and did an outstanding job leading the team to a 7-6 record and a bowl victory, and his squad continued to show improvement last season.
Ole Miss started off red-hot with three straight wins, including at Vanderbilt in its SEC opener on Aug. 29 (39-35), but from there it slipped up in three straight to Alabama (25-0), Auburn (30-22) and Texas A&M (41-38) as it buried itself in the SEC Western Division standings.
The Rebels' streakiness continued over the second half of the season. After winning four in a row, highlighted by a 27-24 triumph over LSU on Oct. 19, they closed out the regular season with back-to-back losses to Missouri (24-10) and rival Mississippi State (17-10 in OT) in the Egg Bowl. The squad managed to rebound in time for the Music City Bowl, where it took care of business against Georgia Tech with a 25-17 win.
Expectations are high in Oxford for the 2014 campaign, as the Rebels are ranked No. 19 in the Preseason Coaches Poll, but in a loaded SEC West they are still looking up at Alabama (No. 2), Auburn (No. 5) and LSU (No. 13) and sit just ahead of Texas A&M (No. 20).
OFFENSE: The Rebels possessed an outstanding offense a season ago, ranking fifth in the SEC in racking up 473.3 ypg, but for all that movement down the field, they placed a mere eighth in the league in scoring (30.0 ppg).
In his second season as the starting quarterback, Bo Wallace saw a slight downtick in total touchdowns (30 in 2012, 24 in 2013), but he curbed his turnover problem, cutting his interceptions nearly in half (10 down from 17) and he completed nearly 65 percent of his passes for 3,346 yards while adding 355 rushing yards. Now a senior, Wallace appears poised to take another leap forward into the SEC's elite.
"He's gained about 15 pounds," Freeze said of his quarterback. "He's excited about the way he feels and the work that has taken place in the offseason. I think he's as confident as I've ever seen him...I'm really pleased with the progress he's made in leading our football team and going about his business."
Laquon Treadwell is back after leading the team in receptions a year ago (72), but all those grabs led to just 608 yards (8.4 ypc). The absence of big-play receiver Donte Moncrief (59 receptions, 938 yards, six TDs) will open up opportunities for the likes of Vince Sanders, Quincy Adeboyejo and Cody Core.
In a rotating backfield in 2013, I'Tavius Mathers (563 yards, three TDs) and Jaylen Walton (523 yards, six TDs) combined for plenty of production, and sophomore Mark Dodson will also figure in the running back-by-committee.
The offensive line will be inexperienced with only guards Aaron Morris and Justin Bell returning.
DEFENSE: Ole Miss did plenty to earn respect last season in a conference chock full of stout defenses, ranking seventh in both points allowed (23.7 ppg) and yards allowed (370.5 ypg) per game. The return of nine starters, including several high-impact playmakers, makes the Rebels' defensive unit a strong bet to improve.
Despite missing two games due to injury, linebacker Serderius Bryant led the team in tackles (78) and TFL (12.5). Cody Prewitt, a Preseason First Team All- SEC selection at safety, was a game-changer in the secondary with 71 tackles, six interceptions and two forced fumbles.
Last year's top defensive recruit Robert Nkemdiche showed flashes of brilliance as a freshman with 8.0 TFL in 11 games, and with another year of seasoning under his belt he should continue to grow into one of the most dominant defensive tackles in the nation.
Tony Conner (66 tackles, INT), Trae Elston (62 tackles, two FR), Mike Hilton (52 tackles, INT) and Senquez Golson (41 tackles, two INT) bring invaluable experience to the defensive backfield. Denzel Nkemdiche (35 tackles) and Issac Gross (9.0 TFL, 3.5 sacks) return as starters in the front seven.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The squad will roll out two new kicking specialists this season -- Andrew Fletcher at kicker and Will Gleeson at punter.
In addition to his running back duties, Walton was also the kickoff return specialist in 2013, although his 25 returns netted just 515 yards (20.6 avg). The team employed five different punt returners last year, and Carlos Davis, Anthony Alford, Adeboyejo and others will be given opportunities at fielding punts this fall.
OUTLOOK: After two straight years of improvement under Freeze, Ole Miss is officially no longer flying under the radar, as evident by its placement in the preseason poll. Freeze is not shying away from his team's label as a potential dark horse in the SEC.
"I said on day one that my expectations were to make Ole Miss very relevant in the SEC West, and I think this year we should be that," Freeze said. "That's my expectation, is that we should be competitive in every single game."
Of course, climbing the ladder in the SEC West will be no easy task, as Ole Miss will have to tangle with Alabama (Oct. 4), Texas A&M (Oct. 11), LSU (Oct. 25), Auburn (Nov. 1) and Mississippi State (Nov. 29). In any other division in any other conference, the Rebels would be one of the favorites, but things are much different in the SEC. Even if it can't shock the division favorites this year, an improvement to nine or 10 wins is well within reach for this ever- improving bunch.