Star-laden Rebels embracing ‘window’ talk of winning SEC West

Coach Hugh Freeze (15-11 in his Oxford tenure) and the Rebels are the only SEC team to host both Alabama (Oct. 4) and Auburn (Nov. 1) this season.

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After all, the club is riding reasonably high from an 8-5 campaign that included tent-pole victories over Texas, LSU and Georgia Tech (bowl game) and returning nearly every major contributor to Oxford — most notably quarterback Bo Wallace (the SEC’s leading returning passer), All-American safety Cody Prewitt and the star-laden sophomore trio of receiver Laquon Treadwell, offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil and linebacker Robert Nkdemiche, the most coveted preps recruit of 2013.

Plus, and this cannot be overstated, Coach Freeze has finally reached a point in his Ole Miss tenure (entering Year 3) where the Rebels have sufficient depth and talent to sustain and flourish through a 12-game season (plus the bowl game) that includes eight grueling outings in the SEC.

"It’s Year 3 of our journey," said the 45-year-old Freeze on Thursday, the last day of the super-sized SEC Media Days, "and we’re about to be all-in."

Freeze’s confidence emanates from various occurrences, like the Rebels’ bowl victories from the last two years, keeping his coaching staff fully intact from last season and the crisp, physical and highly competitive round of spring practices.

Also, don’t forget about three straight years of superb recruiting.

"No question, the expectations (for this program) have been raised," said Freeze, who initially thought Year 3 would be the Rebels’ first breakthrough under his watch.

This isn’t some form of cock-eyed optimism, based in pipe dreams and pretty rainbows.  Ole Miss can contend for a division title … considering Alabama and LSU are breaking in new quarterbacks and regaling how Auburn broke the code on amazing turnarounds in 2013 — going from 0-8 to 7-1 in 12 months’ time, culminating in the SEC championship and a berth in the BCS title game (losing to Florida State in the final minute).

The Rebels’ Bo Wallace certainly falls in that "known" category, accounting for 3,701 total yards (3,346 yards passing) and 18 touchdowns last year. He enjoyed a particularly fruitful stretch against Auburn, Texas A&M and LSU in October, passing for five TDs and averaging 316 yards per outing.

"We don’t feel any (contending) pressure at all," says Wallace. "We are confident that we can (be competitive late in games) with the best teams. … We are a dark horse, and we know that, and we are working every day to try and win an SEC championship."

Schedule-wise, aside from the cannon-fodder matchup with Presbyterian (Nov. 8), Ole Miss has an attractive slate of non-conference foes — emphasizing national prominence (neutral-site opener against Boise State), an up-and-coming program (Louisiana-Lafayette) and traditional regional rival (Memphis).

After that, the Rebels must confront the annual onslaught of SEC West rivals, including trips to Texas A&M (Oct. 11) and LSU (Oct. 25).

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The good news: Ole Miss has its three season-defining games at home — Alabama (Oct. 4), Auburn (Nov. 1) and Mississippi State (Nov. 29).

"It’s always big to have (big) games at home," says Freeze, alluding to playing Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. "Certainly, having them at home is advantageous, and we’re hoping our fans (will be) ready to go."

Ole Miss, which opens the season against Boise State (Aug. 28 in Atlanta) has always garnered good support from its fan base. But the recruiting boon from 2013 — landing decorated, blue-chip assets like Nkemdiche, Tunsill and Treadwell (72 catches, 608 yards, five TDs as a freshman) — has amped up the Rebels’ odds of earning their first-ever berth to the SEC title game.

At this point, Freeze says the trio are better equipped to go through the grind. "Physically, I couldn’t be more pleased … no question, when we look back on this season, those guys will have a huge role in determining how successful we are."

Cody Prewitt, a virutal doppelganger to Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu and the SEC’s only returning All-American defender, doesn’t mind hearkening back to last season — for future motivation.

When asked which defeat still haunts him from 2013, he briefly paused, flashed a wide grin and then said, "State," alluding to Mississippi State’s 17-10 overtime win over Ole Miss (at Starkville). And when recounting the sweetest triumph, he revels’ in the Rebels’ overtime win over LSU.

And commanding the top spot is none other than … LSU’s Les Miles, Ragan Freeze’s favorite midfield compatriot on game day.

"She doesn’t put me on the list," says Hugh Freeze. "But if she did, I hope I’d be number 1."