The Ole Miss Rebels hope that 2014 is the year they can break through in the tough Southeastern Conference Western Division. After an 8-5 mark last season, the Rebels are on the cusp of stepping into the conversation for best in the west.
Ole Miss returns 16 starters this season, with nine of those coming on the defensive side of the ball.
Head coach Hugh Freeze is back for his third season in Oxford. The Rebels have improved in each of Freeze’s two seasons at the helm of the program. If they can improve again this season, they could find themselves in the race for an SEC title.
The offense starts with quarterback Bo Wallace, who has started more games in his career than any other current SEC quarterback. Wallace could set several school records this season, especially if he can duplicate last season’s performance, when he was 283-of-437 through the air for 3,346 yards with 18 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Ole Miss also returns last season’s top two rushers, juniors I’Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton. Mathers led the team with 563 yards on the ground in 2013, while Walton had 523 yards rushing and a team-best six touchdowns. Mark Dodson, Jordan Wilkins, Eugene Brazley and Akeem Judd could also see time at running back.
The Rebels will have a huge hole to fill at wide receiver with the departure of Donte Moncrief. However, Freeze and his staff think they have another big play receiver in Laquon Treadwell, who caught 72 passes for 608 yards and five touchdowns last season.
Opposite Treadwell, the Rebels will use seniors Vince Sanders and Collins Moore, junior Cody Core and sophomore Quincy Adeboyejo. True freshmen Dayall Harris and Markell Pack could also be in the mix.
The biggest question mark on offense will be the line, which lost three starters from last season. Laremy Tunsil returns at left tackle, while Justin Bell also returns. Bell is expected to move to left guard this season. Ben Still, Robert Conyers and Aaron Morris could round out the starting line.
Robert Nkemdiche, who was named Freshman All-American as a defensive end last season, returns for his sophomore season. The other end could be Bryon Bennett. Tackles Issac Gross and Woodrow Hamilton are also back. Lavon Hooks, C.J. Johnson and Fadol Brown should add depth on the line, as will newcomers Garrald McDowell and Chris Williams.
At linebacker, senior Sederius Bryant is back after an All-SEC campaign last year. Junior Denzel Nkemdiche is also back, along with Deterrian Shackelford. Junior college transfers Christian Russell and Temario Strong are in the mix for starting positions as well.
Free safety Cody Prewitt, who was named First-Team All-American by some outlets last season, returns for his senior campaign. Prewitt had 71 tackles and an SEC-best six interceptions in 2013.
Prewitt will have plenty of company in the secondary. Also returning are cornerbacks Senquez Golson and Mike Hilton, Rover Trae Elston and Huskie Tony Conner.
Ole Miss kicks off the season with a Thursday night neutral site game against Boise State in Atlanta. The following week, conference play begins when the Rebels visit the Vanderbilt Commodores.
The home opener for Ole Miss is September 13, when the Rebels host Louisiana-Lafayette. After a week off, the Rebels welcome Memphis to Oxford.
On October 4, the Rebels are hoping for big things, as they host the Alabama Crimson Tide. A win in that game could put Ole Miss squarely in contention in the SEC West.
Ole Miss hosts Presbyterian on November 8. After a week off, the Rebels visit the Arkansas Razorbacks before closing out the season at home against its intrastate rivals, the Mississippi State Bulldogs, in the Egg Bowl.
The pieces appear to be in place for Ole Miss to be in the SEC race this season. Finding replacements on the offensive line and negotiating a tough schedule will be the main hurdles. Having Alabama and Auburn at home will help the cause, but Ole Miss cannot afford any mistakes on the road if they want to be in the division title hunt in November.
Tim Letcher is a contributing writer for RantSports.com and a member of the Football Writers Association of America. Follow him on Twitter @TimLetcher , on Facebook or add him to your network on Google.