OXFORD, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi coach Hugh Freeze led a stunning turnaround during his first season, leading the Rebels to a 7-6 record one year after the Rebels won just two games.
A suitable encore won't be easy.
Freeze said the program is "headed in the right the direction and a little bit ahead of schedule," but also warned against "unrealistic expectations."
Ole Miss is trying to become relevant in the loaded SEC Western Division, which includes two-time defending national champion Alabama and other power programs like LSU and Texas A&M.
The Rebels have nearly their entire roster returning, including standouts like quarterback Bo Wallace, receiver Donte Moncrief and linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche. Ole Miss also welcomes arguably the most anticipated freshman class in program history — including the nation's consensus No. 1 overall recruit in defensive end Robert Nkemdiche.
It certainly looks good on paper. Freeze is cautiously optimistic.
"I think we have the ability to scare a lot of people, and I expect us to," Freeze said. "That doesn't mean we can win all of those games. I believe unrealistic expectations — when you speak them — then true frustration comes in. We have to continue what we do with great enthusiasm. We will get there, but we live in a society that works instantaneously and that's not what football and the SEC are like."
Wallace and his surgically-repaired right shoulder will be under scrutiny, especially early in the season. He threw for 2,994 yards, 22 touchdowns and 17 interceptions a year ago.
Highly regarded freshmen like Nkemdiche (Denzel's brother) and receiver Laquon Treadwell arrived on campus just a few months ago, but will be expected to help immediately.
The Rebels won't have long to blend the new players into the roster. Ole Miss has a difficult early-season schedule, with games against Vanderbilt, Texas, Alabama and Texas A&M in the first six games.
Wallace said the Rebels have plenty of confidence and lofty goals, but aren't interested in expectations coming from the outside.
"We just control what we can in our building and know that we have the players to play in this league," Wallace said.
Here are five things to keep an eye on while watching the Rebels:
1. BO'S SHOULDER: Much of the reason Ole Miss was such a dangerous team in coach Hugh Freeze's first season was the emergence of Bo Wallace, who threw for nearly 3,000 yards and also rushed for eight touchdowns. Wallace played with a shoulder injury for much of the season and had surgery to repair the damage over the winter. He's expected to be at full health for the opener against Vanderbilt, but it remains to be seen if his body can take the constant pounding that's a hallmark of the SEC.
2. TALENTED YOUNGSTERS: Ole Miss turned heads during the offseason by pulling in a freshman class that was ranked by many recruiting analysts as among the top 10 in the country. The haul included defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, who was the consensus No. 1 recruit in the country. He'll be expected to contribute immediately and others — like receiver Laquon Treadwell and offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil — will get every opportunity to break into the playing rotation.
3. HUGH, YEAR TWO: Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze debuted a dynamic offense during his first season that gives opponents a heavy helping of the popular fast-tempo style. Freeze took some of his opponents by surprise last season — scoring more than 31 points per game — but now everyone has plenty of film on the Rebels to see what they do.
4. FIRST SIX WEEKS: The Rebels don't get to ease into their schedule, facing a vastly-improved Vanderbilt team in the season opener on Aug. 29. The first seven games are filled with high-quality opponents like Alabama, LSU, Texas and Texas A&M. If Ole Miss can survive that gauntlet without totally losing confidence, there are several winnable games on the back half of the schedule.
5. DEFENSIVE IMPROVEMENT: The Ole Miss defense was a mess during the first half of last season, but steadily improved throughout the year. The Rebels need it to be good right away this season and will lean heavily on senior cornerback Charles Sawyer and linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche.
Predicted finish in the SEC West: Fourth.