Following the win over Oklahoma State in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 2016, Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze hoisted the trophy high in the air after returning the Rebels to glory. Flanked by Chancellor Jeff Vitter and Athletic Director Ross Bjork, Ole Miss football had finally reached the mountain top.
Fast forward to 2019 and things have changed drastically. The Rebels haven’t had a winning record or returned to a bowl game (thanks to a ban) and are a shell of itself since that night in the Crescent City.
Freeze, Bjork and Vitter are gone. Once the NCAA had a proverbial key to the front door to the athletics building provided by Vitter and Bjork, the organization investigated the Rebels from head to toe before rendering a verdict that packed very little punch.
Unfortunately for Ole Miss, the damage had been done, due to the length of the investigation. It left all sorts of uncertainty from 2016-2018, leaving recruiting classes sparse and players on the team wondering what the future held.
Head coach Matt Luke inherited a program on life support and after blistering the recruiting trail the past 2 seasons, breathed life back into it after finishing 5-7 in his first full season as head coach.
The bad news? Last season it wasn’t just the losses to SEC teams, it was the differential. Alabama, LSU and Mississippi State combined to beat the Rebels 142-26. The good news? With new coordinators on both sides of the ball in Rich Rodriguez and Mike MacIntyre, things will improve.
A schedule with wins attainable, the first 2 weeks will be the tale of the tape for this program, which leads to the 1st of 5 concerns I have about the Rebels.
Some say it’s hyperbolic to point out the first 2 games make the season for Ole Miss. I’m not one of those people. The goal for this team is to get back to a bowl of any sort. The path to 6 wins and a bowl opportunity must include wins over Memphis and Arkansas. On paper, Vanderbilt is the best opportunity to grab the 2nd SEC win. If chalk prevails, Matt Luke and the Rebels could be bowling for the first time since 2015.
The Tigers come in as an early 6-point favorite and return its quarterback in Brady White. The junior completed over 60% of his passes and tossed 26 touchdowns. Sure, Ole Miss returns 10 starters, but they must improve or White will light them up. The good news for Ole Miss, Memphis lost 3 starters on the offensive line and its top rusher Darrell Henderson to the NFL.
Make no mistake, the Tigers have this game circled. It will be a scorcher inside the Liberty Bowl with an 11 a.m. local kickoff.
As for Arkansas, coach Chad Morris’ next SEC win will be his first one. I’m not sure there’s a coach in the conference who needs a win any more than Morris and the Hogs. Last season the Rebels won a nail-biter in Little Rock 37-33. This season, Arkansas gets Missouri from the East and has its best chance at a win in Oxford.
There are 2 scenarios for Ole Miss. If it beats Memphis and Arkansas, the Rebels will host California from the Pac-12, be 3-0 and you can bet that Vaught-Hemingway will be sold out. The other scenario? Ole Miss will be 0-2 hosting Southeast Louisiana in front of 15,000 fans in Oxford.
The question is, will the season be over before Sept. 14?
For the Rebels, the offense could be really good. With Matt Corral directing the new Rich Rodriguez offense, it returns a bevy of running backs. Scottie Phillips, who was only 39 yards short of 1,000, leads the group, but all eyes are on 5-star freshman Jerrion Ealy. The Jackson, Miss., star turned down baseball money and other schools. There appear to be no worries at wide receiver, even though the Rebels lost 3 receivers to the NFL in A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf and DaMarkus Lodge. Elijah Moore and Braylon Sanders return.
JUCO product Dontario Drummond will play early as well, coming from the highly successful East Mississippi Community College program. Look for freshmen Dannis Jackson and Jonathan Mingo to see action early. Both were 4-star recruits.
The wild card could be WR/RB Tylan Knight. The Pearl, Miss., product had a terrific spring and was lauded by his efforts from Rodriguez.
The offensive line will be the biggest question mark. While the talent is there, it is thin. Last season, the Rebels returned 4 starters who combined for 102 starts. This season they only return 2. There is help on the way. Luke signed 7 linemen in the recent class and some will have to play. We’ll find out soon enough if they’ll be ready.
Simply put, it has to. With 10 starters returning, I look for the defense to be vastly improved. Experience returns on the line in Benito Jones, Qaadir Sheppard and Josiah Coatney. With the new 3-4 defense implemented by MacIntyre, the depth is there as well. Sam Williams, a transfer from Northeast Mississippi Community College can play down at defensive end and up at linebacker.
A position that has to improve as well is linebacker. The leader is Mohamed Sanogo who tallied 112 tackles last fall. Jacques Jones and Willie Hibbler also return. Remember the name Lakia Henry. The top-rated JUCO linebacker in the country signed with the Rebels last year. Ole Miss has allowed 34.6 and 36.2 points per game in 2017 and 2018, respectively. Many of those came via the run.
Something has to give.
The one player that could touch the ball first is Jerrion Ealy. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him returning kickoffs. He’ll be a staple in the backfield early. Both Dannis Jackson and Jonathan Mingo are receivers you could see for the opening game against Memphis. Losing Metcalf, Brown and Lodge to the NFL, Ole Miss will be looking for production from the wideout positions. While it might not be at his native running back position, Snoop Conner from Hattiesburg will be on the field. During the Spring Game, he was really good at running back. He’s an athlete who will play somewhere.
The easiest answer is linebacker Mohamed Sanogo. The senior led the team in tackles by a large margin with 112 and 5.5 tackles for loss last year. Don’t be surprised to see sophomore Ben Brown on the list. He can play almost any position on the offensive line.
Should Ole Miss have a player on the All-SEC Freshman team, it likely will be Jerrion Ealy. Whether on special teams or on offense, Ealy is a special talent and will make his mark on Ole Miss football.
Richard Cross, who serves as host of the statewide sports talk show Sports Talk Mississippi, predicted that Ole Miss would begin and end the season in Memphis.
Should Cross’ proclamation come true, Ole Miss would finish the 2019 season playing in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.
If that happens, the 2019 season would be deemed a roaring success.