Orlando Sentinel college insider Matt Murschel has ranked all 125 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the country. The Sentinel staff will take a closer look at a new team daily, counting backward from No. 125 to our projected No. 1 team.
Today at No. 35: Ole Miss
Coach: Hugh Freeze (7-6 in first season, 36-13 overall).
2012 results: 7-6 (3-5 SEC, fifth place in West Division)
Offensive starters returning: 8
Offensive starters lost: 3
Defensive starters returning: 7
Defensive starters lost: 4
Key losses: NT Gilbert Pena, G A.J. Hawkins, DT Uriah Grant
Top returnees: QB Bo Wallace, WR Donte Moncrief, LB Denzel Nkemdiche, S Cody Prewitt, DE C.J. Johnson, RB Jeff Scott, OT Emmanuel McCray, OT Pierce Burton, LB Mike Marry, Rover Trae Elston
Look back: Coach Hugh Freeze came to Ole Miss after he led Arkansas State to a 10-2 record and the school’s first Sun Belt Conference championship since 2005. Known for coaching dynamic offenses, Freeze, a former Rebels assistant, quickly turned things around in Oxford. The team experienced a five-win improvement in 2012 and snapped a 14-game SEC losing streak. Ole Miss capped the regular season with a 41-24 win against Mississippi State – the Rebels’ first in the Egg Bowl since 2008 – and earned the school’s first bowl bid since 2009. The Rebels ranked in the top five in the SEC in scoring and total offense after finishing second to last with 16.1 points per game in 2011.
Strengths: Quarterback Bo Wallace threw for 2,994 yards and 22 touchdowns and ran for 390 yards and eight scores in 2012. Offseason shoulder surgery sidelined him during the spring, but big things are expected in his junior season. Junior wide receiver Donte Moncrief is a big (6-3, 226) and productive (66 catches, 979 yards, 10 TDs in 2012) target, while senior running back Jeff Scott (70.5 ypg in 2012) will operate behind an offensive line with four starters back. On defense, linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche was a freshman All-American after he made a team-high 82 tackles – 13 for loss. Cornerback Nick Brassell could be a game-changer if academically eligible. End C.J. Johnson returns after he made 6 1/2 sacks in 2012, when the Rebels were second in sacks (38) to South Carolina (43).
Weaknesses: The Rebels lost four contributors from the defensive line, but freshman end Robert Nkemdiche was the nation’s top high-school recruit and defensive tackle Lavon Hook was the top junior college recruit. Ole Miss returns a veteran offensive line, but allowed an average of 2.6 sacks last season. While Freeze’s recruiting efforts have been more than impressive, he will need another class or two for Ole Miss to develop the depth of a top team. A few key injuries could send the Rebels into a tailspin this season.
Outlook: Ole Miss might be trending more than any of the middle-of-the-pack SEC teams. Freeze followed a seven-win season with a top-five recruiting class headlined by Robert Nkemdiche, the younger brother of Denzel. The Rebels return 15 starters, including their best skill players on offense and the top six tacklers in 2012. Ole Miss will find out quickly whether it is ready to take another step forward. The Rebels are on the road for four of their first five games, including a visit to Alabama, and then return home to face Texas A&M and LSU on consecutive weeks.
Aug. 29 at Vanderbilt
Sept. 7 SE Missouri State
Sept. 14 at Texas
Sept. 28 at Alabama
Oct. 5 at Auburn
Oct. 12 Texas A&M
Oct. 19 LSU
Oct. 26 Idaho
Nov. 9 Arkansas
Nov. 16 Troy
Nov. 23 Missouri
Nov. 30 at Mississippi State
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