OXFORD, Miss. — It’s been a brutal two years for Mississippi’s football program.
The first chance for new Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze to replace some of that disappointment with optimism is finally here.
The Rebels host Central Arkansas on Saturday at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in a game that’s important on many levels. First, Ole Miss simply needs to win a football game after going 2-10 in 2011. But the Rebels also hope to find some playmakers on their inexperienced roster as they attempt to snap their 14-game Southeastern Conference losing streak later this fall.
Preseason camp has provided a few moments of optimism, but Freeze can’t glean much more from the practice field.
“I’m so sick of practice,” Freeze said. “I’m sick of the interviews that you have where people want to know the same thing. You really want to get to the game and talk about how this person did instead of what we expect. It’s all speculation right now. I think it’s time for us, as for every other school, to get on the field and see who is going to perform well.”
Bo Wallace was named the Rebels’ starting quarterback on Thursday. The 6-foot-5, 210-pound junior college transfer has battled with junior Barry Brunetti for the starting spot throughout spring practice and fall camp.
It’s certainly a vote of confidence for Wallace, who threw for 4,604 yards and 53 touchdowns last season at East Mississippi Community College. But Freeze has made it clear that both quarterbacks will play and no starting job is safe.
“I don’t get caught up in depth charts really,” Freeze said. “I want to know who can play and how many guys you have that can play at that position. Who rolls out there that first series, I don’t get too caught up with. At the end of the day, if they make plays for our football team they’ll be happy and so will the coaches.”
Wallace and Brunetti will be charged with leading Freeze’s up-tempo offense that was so instrumental in turning around Arkansas State’s program. It’s a system that calls for quick decisions by the quarterback and can lead to plenty of points — or turnovers — depending on the quality of those decisions.
Freeze said he won’t have a set plan to divide playing time between Wallace and Brunetti. Instead, he hopes one quarterback gets on a roll and forces his way into the full-time spot.
“I plan on scoring every drive,” Wallace said. “If you’re scoring every drive, you’re probably not going to be taken out. So that’s my focus right now.”
Freeze is familiar with Central Arkansas. He led Arkansas State to a 53-24 victory over the Bears last season, but he stressed it wasn’t easy.
He expects Saturday’s game to have a similar theme.
“I was impressed by the scheme he had built for us, particularly the offensive scheme,” Freeze said. “He moved the ball on us and did some things that we had not seen done.”
The Rebels don’t have to reach back too far in their history to realize Central Arkansas shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Just two seasons ago, a Houston Nutt-led Ole Miss team lost to Jacksonville State 49-48 in a double overtime stunner. Nutt and the Rebels were never able to overcome the embarrassing loss, and it started a 6-18 stretch that ended with Nutt’s dismissal.
Now Freeze has been hired to pick up the pieces.
And the Bears are much like Jacksonville State — a solid FCS program that finished with a 9-4 record last season and advanced to the second round of the playoffs. They also have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
“It’s a tremendous challenge,” Central Arkansas coach Clint Conque said. “But a wonderful opportunity.”
The Bears will start junior Wynrick Smothers at quarterback, who takes over after backing up All-American Nathan Dick last season. Central Arkansas runs an up-tempo offense that is similar to Freeze’s system. Members of the Ole Miss defense — which was the worst in the SEC last season — say it should provide a good challenge.
“We just need to keep our composure,” Ole Miss safety Cody Prewitt said. “We need to trust our coaches and the scheme they’ve given us.
“Football is a game that you’ve got to take play by play,” Prewitt said. “You can’t think about the past or the future, you just have to go into each play by itself and play your hardest. As long as you beat the person across from you, that’s all you’ve got to do.”