NCAA Football Preview - Ole Miss Rebels

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Updated: 8/23/2013 11:51 am

After opening up their SEC schedule with a pair of losses to Alabama (33-14) and Texas A&M (30-27), the Rebels claimed a 41-20 victory over Auburn on Oct. 13 to end a 16-game conference losing streak. From there, the squad managed two more league wins at Arkansas (30-27) and versus Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl rivalry game (41-24) to finish the regular season 6-6 and bowl- eligible for the first time since 2009.

In the BBVA Compass Bowl, Ole Miss made easy work of Pittsburgh, 38-17, giving it wins in five consecutive bowl appearances dating back to 2002.

The Rebels fell victim to a very difficult schedule, with all six of their losses coming to teams that finished the year ranked in the AP Top-25 (Texas, Alabama, Texas A&M, Georgia, Vanderbilt, LSU).

2013 ANALYSIS:

OFFENSE: The Rebels were one of the league's biggest surprises last season thanks to their better-than-expected offense, which racked up 31.5 ppg and 423.8 ypg while scoring on 91 percent of their red zone drives.

In his first season as the starter, quarterback Bo Wallace put together an outstanding dual-threat campaign, completing nearly 64 percent of his passes for 2,994 yards, rushing for 390 yards and combining for 30 touchdowns. He was turnover prone, however, with an SEC-high 17 picks.

"In this league, to have an experienced quarterback is invaluable." Freeze said of his signal-caller. "I expect Bo to cut down on his turnovers. He kind of plays the game a little bit too free for me at times with the football. He'll be the first to tell you that."

Wallace developed an outstanding rapport with Donte Moncrief, who hauled in 66 receptions for 979 yards and a single-season school record-tying 10 TDs. Ja- Mes Logan (43 rec, 490 yards) and Vince Sanders (39 rec, 504 yards, four TDs) also return to round out one of the top receiving corps in the SEC.

Jeff Scott (846 yards, six TDs) was solid as the primary back in 2012 and will assume that role once again this season, although youngsters I'Tavius Mathers, Jaylen Walton and Mark Dodson could cut into his workload.

Emmanuel McCray, Evan Swindall, Pierce Burton and Aaron Morris all retain their starting spots on the offensive line.

DEFENSE: Ole Miss failed to reach elite levels last season thanks to a modest defense, although the unit held its own against strong competition with 27.6 ppg, 375.8 ypg, 38 sacks and 28 turnovers.

In a conference full of high-profile playmakers, Denzel Nkemdiche is one of the best. The linebacker shined as a freshman in 2012 (82 tackles, 13 TFL, three sacks, three INTs, four FF), and the sky is the limit for what he can achieve moving forward.

Safety Cody Prewitt (80 tackles, two INTs, two FF), linebacker Mike Marry (78 tackles, 10.5 TFL, INT), cornerback Charles Sawyer (63 tackles, INT), defensive tackle Issac Gross (10 TFL, 2.5 sacks) and defensive end C.J. Johnson (eight TFL, 6.5 sacks) bring experience to all levels of the defense, which all but ensures an improvement in 2013.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Andrew Ritter will take over placekicking duties for Bryson Rose (18-of-28), while Tyler Campbell serves as the team's punter with the departure of Jim Broadway (41.1 avg).

Jaylen Walton (24.7 avg), one of the most feared kick returners in the conference a season ago, brought a kickoff back 100 yards for a touchdown versus Texas on Sept. 14. Korvic Neat (5.1 avg) will likely field punts once again.

OUTLOOK: Ole Miss surprised a lot of people in 2012, and big reason for that is due to the work Freeze put in during his first year. Still, while Freeze wants to remain optimistic for the upcoming season, he also knows the importance of being realistic in the nation's most difficult conference.

"If you have an unreal expectation and it does not come to pass, you get very frustrated," Freeze said. "Our task in year two is to maintain the enthusiasm and energy from both our fans and our players and everyone that is involved in our program as we continue to strive to be relevant in the SEC West."

It's good that Freeze has been tempering his team's and the fans' expectations, since it will be very difficult for the Rebels to compete with the likes of Alabama, Texas A&M and LSU in the SEC West. Those three matchups on the schedule seem likely to be losses, but even with some other difficult contests on the slate (at Vanderbilt, at Texas, vs. Missouri, at Mississippi State), the Rebels figure to compete in each of those. With most of the core returning, expect Ole Miss to improve upon last season's .500 record and make it back to a bowl game.

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