Today, we’re 70+ days away from the kickoff of the 2012 college football season. As such, we’ll preview the No. 78 team in our Rant Sports 100 in 100 college football previews, the Ole Miss Rebels.
At one time one of the SEC’s premier brand names, the Ole Miss Rebels have fallen on hard times the past few seasons, but look to bounce back in 2012. A 2-10 finish in 2011 will almost certainly not be replicated in Oxford, or heads will be sure to roll.
First-year head coach Hugh Freeze doesn’t inherit an easy task, but he does inherit some talented players on both sides of the ball that just need an extra push to once again be productive.
Who will emerge as the Rebels’ signal caller is still somewhat of a mystery given that neither of the competitors was wearing the blue and grey last fall. West Virginia Mountaineers transfer Barry Brunetti, and junior college transfer Bo Wallace— who also was coveted by other DI programs, including the Texas Longhorns— will be in competition throughout the summer and into fall practice.
The running back position, on the flip side, is more set in stone. Pint-sized speed back Jeff Scott is the Rebels’ leading returner from 2011, and will be looking to improve upon a 585-yard, six touchdown campaign. While he won’t be a workhorse back, Scott will be the featured back, and should see between 12-20 carries on Saturdays.
True freshman I’Tavius Mathers is likely to see the remainder of the carries, and at 6’0″, 195 is cut out of the more traditional running back mold.
The Ole Miss wide receiving unit will be one of the deepest and most talented overall in the SEC. Led by Donte Moncrief who caught 31 passes for 454 yards and four touchdowns last season, the Rebels will also expect significant contributions from junior Ja-Mes Logan and senior Randall Mackey.
The offensive line is one of the only true question marks for co-offensive coordinators Dan Werner and Matt Luke, and will need contributions from some unknowns to gel and create the necessary time for the Rebels’ passing and running games.
The Ole Miss defense struggled mightily during 2011, giving up an average of 32.1 points and 419 yards of total offense per game. Needless to say, there’s nowhere to go but up.
Defensive coordinator Dave Wommack will continue to go with the 4-2-5 as the Rebels’ base set, but should be substantially more aggressive this coming season given his personnel.
Seven starters return this fall on defense, including junior linebacker Mike Marry who led the team in tackles in 2011 with 81 (3 TFL). Defensive ends C.J. Johnson and Channing Ward should also get an opportunity to step up and play to the potential that saw both men be highly recruited during their time as prep players in Mississippi a few years ago.
Defensive tackle Byron Bennett will set the tone on the defensive line, while senior cornerback Wesley Pendleton and junior safety Charles Sawyer will bolster a secondary that will be tested with consistency in a 4-2-5 scheme that should give quarterbacks plenty of time to throw.
Improving on a 2-11 finish doesn’t take much, and the Rebels’ first two games give them a chance to get off to a quick start. Ole Miss opens the season against FBS Central Arkansas at home and then welcome the UTEP Miners to town in Week 2.
A 2-0 start would be great for momentum’s sake, as the Rebels welcome a Texas Longhorns team to Oxford in Week 3 that promises to be hungry and much improved.
The Rebels hit the road to visit the Tulane Green Wave in Week 4 before kicking off the SEC slate at home against defending National Champion Alabama on September 29th.
From there, things only get tougher.
While a bowl bid may not be reasonable in 2012, the Rebels almost certainly will improve and begin moving back in the right direction.
Kris Hughes is the College Football Network Manager for Rant Sports and a member of the Football Writers Association of America.
Kris is also the host of Rant Sports Radio on the Blog Talk Radio Network Wednesday evenings at 8 Central Time.