After finishing 8-5 overall and 3-5 in conference play, the Ole Miss Rebels have something to prove in 2014. After starting the 2013 season with three wins, including a victory over the improved Vanderbilt Commodores and a blowout of the Texas Longhorns, spirits were soaring in Oxford.
The Rebels ran into the SEC West meat grinder and reeled off three straight losses to the Alabama Crimson Tide, the Auburn Tigers and the Texas A&M Aggies, which effectively ended their chances of winning the division. A heartbreaking overtime loss to the Mississippi State Bulldogs to finish the regular season still sticks in the craw of many Ole Miss fans.
Some salve for the wounds could be coming, however. Bo Wallace has elected to remain for his senior season and the Rebels could threaten Auburn, Alabama and the LSU Tigers for SEC West supremacy. Wallace can beat defenses with his legs (six rushing touchdowns) or his arm (3,346 yards passing and 18 touchdowns). His backfield options are the returning two-headed attack of Jaylen Walton and I’Tavius Mathers, a combo that accounted for 1,068 yards and nine touchdowns.
Wide receiver Donte Moncrief has declared for the NFL draft, but rising sophomore Laquon Treadwell looks to fill his shoes. Treadwell was a 2013 recruiting coup for the Rebels, and he showed why he was sought by many programs all over the country, leading the team in receptions (72) and making physical plays downfield for coach Hugh Freeze’s squad.
The offensive line will be anchored by tackle Laremy Tunsil, another 2013 recruiting coup that has performed at a high level. Tunsil started at left tackle in 2013 and was elected to the AP All-SEC First Team, surrendering just one sack all season. Also making the All-SEC First Team was Evan Engram, a tight end who missed half of the season, but still managed 20 catches and three touchdowns in only seven games.
A healthy Engram will provide another great option for Wallace, especially in the red zone.
Defensively, the Rebels have a wealth of talent. The Nkemdiche brothers, defensive end Robert and All-SEC linebacker Denzel, return along with fellow All-SEC linebacker Serderius Bryant. AP All-American Cody Prewitt will man the free safety position once again in Oxford. He led the SEC in interceptions and possesses the great size and speed to help with the running game as well.
If the defensive line can consistently penetrate and put pressure on opposing quarterbacks, Ole Miss could find themselves on the better end of the turnover ratio.
This SEC West triumvirate of Auburn, Alabama and LSU has ruled the division for the last seven years. However, with LSU and Alabama losing their starting quarterbacks and NFL attrition taking its toll on all three teams, Ole Miss could step in and find themselves in the thick of the West race. The Rebels get Alabama and Auburn at home this season, and the crowd at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium could be witness to a much-welcomed changing of the guard.