It seemed like it was just yesterday that the Ole Miss football team continued through the motions of fall camp, and we all were just ready for the season to finally begin. Fast forward with a little Talladega up-tempo offense and we find ourselves at the halfway point of the Rebels' 2015 regular season. Where has the time gone? Let's take a look at where Ole Miss has been, where they are now, and where they could be heading down the road.
First Half Review
Coming into the season, there was plenty of hype surrounding the program. The Landshark defense that led the nation in points allowed per game last year returned the majority of its unit despite losing All-Americans Senquez Golson and Cody Prewitt. On the other side of the ball, quarterback Bo Wallace graduated but the Rebels returned nine offensive starters. The biggest question mark coming into the season was who would replace the three-year signal caller.
While there were three quarterbacks competing for the starting job throughout the spring and fall, head coach Hugh Freeze was hoping one would emerge and separate himself from the other two. All three quarterbacks saw action in the first two weeks, and the separation occurred in game two versus Fresno State. Junior quarterback Chad Kelly led the high-powered Ole Miss offense on seven straight touchdown drives in the Rebels' 73-21 victory. The job was his, and it could not have come at a better time as the Rebels prepared to head to Tuscaloosa to face the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Becoming the first team in SEC history to score 73+ points in consecutive games was an incredible achievement, but many people still wondered if the Rebels were for real. Heading into the third week of the season, even the fourth-year head coach was looking for the answer.
"If you ask me if we are ready for SEC play, I really don't know," said Freeze. "I think we have a confident football team right now that believes we can win. I believe we can win."
It turned out that the Rebels were in fact ready for SEC play. Ole Miss took the field with energy and ready to prove that the win over the Tide in Oxford last season was not a fluke. The special teams unit set the pace on the opening kickoff, forcing a fumble to give the offense perfect field position and put the game's first points on the board. It was one of five turnovers Ole Miss forced throughout the night, leading to 24 points. The Rebels led the entire game and limited the noise from the capacity crowd of 101,821 at Bryant-Denny Stadium; when the dust settled, it was Ole Miss who emerged victorious once again over Alabama, 43-37.
Powder blue helmets and all, the Rebels wore the same uniform combination from the last time they beat the Tide in Tuscaloosa (1988). The victory also marked the first time Ole Miss defeated Alabama in back-to-back seasons. Country music superstar Eric Church even realized the significance of the victory, and wanting to take part in the celebration, led the locker room in the Hotty Toddy chant after the game. The win was a big deal. It proved that the Rebels belonged among the nation's elite. Ole Miss became the talk of the college football world and rose to No. 3 in the AP poll. Senior Trae Elston even represented Ole Miss on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
While the victory was a monumental win, it was also just one game, like all of the rest throughout the season. The Rebels had to get ready for Vanderbilt and focus on the task at hand. The Commodores proved to be a feisty bunch, and the Rebels did not put together one of their best performances of the season. Nonetheless, Ole Miss protected Hollingsworth Field for a 27-16 win.
Sitting at 5-0 and No. 3 in the country, the Rebels had a big target on their backs and were getting everyone's best shot. Vanderbilt did it the week before, so it would be no surprise that Florida would do the same, especially under the lights of The Swamp. A perfect storm was brewing down in Gainesville. One week prior, Jim McElwain's Florida team rallied from 13 points down in the fourth quarter to shock Tennessee and keep the Gators' perfect season alive. The win seemed to have given Florida some new-found confidence, and that proved to be the case when UF and Ole Miss took the field. Florida came out firing on all cylinders; the offense converted on third downs to march down the field, while the defense kept the high-octane Ole Miss offense in-check and forced four turnovers. The result was a 38-10 win for Florida, handing the Rebels their first loss of the season.
The setback proved the difficulty of not only going undefeated throughout the season, but it also brought out the grind of playing in the SEC, especially away from home. The Rebels returned to their winning ways with a 52-3 thumping of New Mexico State Saturday afternoon as part of the Homecoming festivities. The offense racked up a season-high 665 yards, while the Landshark defense allowed a season-low 239 total yards.
Where We Stand
After taking a look at the first half of the season, let's bring things up to the present time. Ole Miss is 5-1 on the 2015 campaign, winning five of its first six games for the second time since 2003 and also in back-to-back seasons. The Rebels are 2-1 in SEC play with wins over No. 2 Alabama and Vanderbilt to go along with the loss to No. 23 Florida in The Swamp. Although the College Football Playoff rankings won't come out for another three weeks, Ole Miss is No. 12 in the Amway coaches poll No. 13 in the AP poll.
Last season, the Landshark defense led the nation in surrendering the fewest points per game. While the Landsharks still have their fins up in 2015, it has been the offense that has shined brighter. Coach Freeze has developed the Rebel offense into a well-oiled machine in his four seasons in Oxford. Averaging 46.8 points per game, Ole Miss has scored 281 points this year, which already surpasses point totals in five seasons this century. That's a pretty impressive statistic considering we still have at least half of the season remaining.
Kelly leads the potent offense, and the junior quarterback stands atop the SEC in multiple categories: passing yards (1,862), yards per completion (15.39), total offense (331.08 per game) and TD passes (14). A few of those categories rank among the top 10 in the country. He's thrown for over 300 yards in four of the six games, which already ties Bo Wallace and two-time Super Bowl champion/MVP Eli Manning for the most in one season. Again, this is at the HALFWAY point of the season. Finally, Kelly's past has been talked about ever since he arrived on campus and he has tried to put that behind him to become the best person he can be on and off the field. It has shown; the young man has matured and become a leader of the Ole Miss football team.
The wide receiving corps might be one of the best in the country, led by junior Laquon Treadwell, who has bounced back from that terrible injury he suffered versus Auburn last year. Treadwell has 35 catches, nearly double that of Quincy Adeboyejo who is second on the team with 18 catches, five of those resulting in touchdowns. Adeboyejo and senior Cody Core have been deep threats for Kelly, as Core averages over 20 yards per catch to be among the SEC leaders in that category. Don't forget about Markell Pack, Damore'ea Stringfellow and Evan Engram either; that trio has combined for 38 receptions. Needless to say, Kelly has options out in space.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Nkemdiche brothers lead the way in tackles. Senior Denzel Nkemdiche's 38 tackles are a team high and Robert Nkemdiche has tallied a Rebel best 5.5 tackles for loss. The younger of the siblings put together his own highlight reel in the big win over No. 2 Alabama, earning SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors. Robert is a do-it-all athlete that provides an impact whenever he's on the field. Need any more proof? He blocked a field goal and has found the end zone three times on offense thus far. Also on the line is sophomore Marquis Haynes, who has recorded 11.0 sacks in his short time at Ole Miss, already becoming a top-10 career sack leader for the program. In the secondary, Elston has four interceptions, including two pick sixes.
Teams deal with injuries every year. It's part of the physicality of football. Unfortunately, the injury bug has hit the Rebels hard this season. Starting defensive lineman Issac Gross was lost for the season, while 2014 All-SEC honorees Tony Conner and C.J. Johnson required surgery and expect to miss at least four weeks with their respective injuries. On Saturday, a total of seven starters did not play versus New Mexico State.
Speaking of starters not playing, All-American offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil has not seen the field once this season, sitting out due to an NCAA investigation of improper benefits. Earlier this week, the NCAA finally announced its decision, suspending Tunsil for seven games, which means the junior will be able to return when Ole Miss hosts Texas A&M, Oct. 24. A fan favorite throughout his time at Ole Miss, Rebel Nation will be sure to give the big man a warm welcome when he emerges from the tunnel and steps onto Hollingsworth Field.
Fear not Rebel Nation; losses happen in college football. Yes they're disappointing, but the probability of going undefeated in a season is incredibly slim. Look at last season. A whopping zero teams ended the campaign unbeaten. The team that hoisted the national championship trophy lost by 14 points at home, in primetime, and to a team that finished the season with a 7-6 record. Florida is currently ranked No. 8 with a record of 6-0, and The Swamp has been known as one of the nation's most difficult places to play for opposing teams.
Memphis, unbeaten and ranked No. 22 in the coaches poll, awaits the Rebels. The Tigers have had two weeks to prepare for Ole Miss, and the Memphis faithful has been anxious for this nationally televised game (11 a.m., ABC). When the Tigers held on for a narrow victory over Cincinnati, Sept. 24, Memphis fans could be heard chanting "we want Ole Miss" throughout Liberty Bowl Stadium. The non-conference affair has plenty of implications. Memphis looks to remain unbeaten and in line for a New Year's Six bowl game, while Ole Miss hopes to improve to 6-1 and grab some momentum heading into the SEC West gauntlet.
The trip to Memphis will be the Rebels' third road game against a nationally ranked team. The schedule doesn't get any easier as the season progresses. Texas A&M, Arkansas and LSU will come to Oxford to face the Rebels. Ole Miss also has to hit the road for a matchup against Auburn on Halloween as well as face Mississippi State in Starkville for the season-ending Egg Bowl.
Yes, Ole Miss has a blemish on its schedule. However, the loss was against an SEC East opponent. Doing some football math, going 1-1 against their two cross-divisional opponents plus a victory over an SEC West foe (Alabama) equals the Rebels controlling their destiny to the SEC Championship game. Ole Miss' remaining five conference games are all against teams from the West, giving the Rebels control. It won't be an easy task due to the stiff competition in the division, but if Ole Miss takes care of business in each of those contests, we will be hearing "Hotty Toddy" echoing throughout the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
Along with the vision of an SEC crown, the bigger picture is the Rebels' quest of making the College Football Playoff, which is still a possibility. Once again, it requires Ole Miss taking care of business and that starts on the road this weekend against Memphis. The sky is the limit for the 2015 Ole Miss football team. Coach Freeze and the Rebels know they have to focus on the weekly task at hand, taking one game at a time in order to get there. In this week's press conference, he mentioned the message to his team. "Do your assignment and your job to the best of your ability with great enthusiasm on that given play, and we'll see at the end of four quarters if that was good enough." The Rebels need to continue living up to their season motto and #TakeAStand.
The second half of the season is upon us. I'm sure the time will fly by, so buckle up and enjoy the ride. We'll see what happens down the stretch. Hotty Toddy!