NEW ORLEANS -- If this was it for Ole Miss' triumvirate of junior stars -- and of course it was -- what an exit for the two who were on the field.
Robert Nkemdiche, who was suspended for Friday's 48-20 blowout of Oklahoma State in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, has already declared his intention to enter the NFL draft. Laquon Treadwell and Laremy Tunsil probably will join him soon. No matter how loudly Rebels fans chanted "One more year!" after Friday's win, the three future first-round picks will be cashing NFL paychecks within a matter of months.
As Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly said of Treadwell's decision after the game, "When it's time, it's time."
Even without defensive end Nkemdiche on the field, the remaining jewels of the Rebels' star-studded 2013 signing class reminded us why recruiting analysts proclaimed the day they signed as a program changer for Ole Miss. Without question it was, and it is the main reason Ole Miss is one of two SEC programs to have played in New Year's Six bowl games in the last two seasons.
If Ole Miss holds onto the No. 1 spot it currently occupies in ESPN's 2016 recruiting rankings, that would be another example of the chain reaction that one heavyweight recruiting class can create.
Coach Hugh Freeze legitimized his program by landing the nation's top overall prospect, Nkemdiche, in his second signing class. At the same time, he added the top offensive tackle, Tunsil, and No. 1 wide receiver, Treadwell -- the key figures in a group that ESPN Recruiting called a "dream class" and "arguably its best-ever recruiting class."
The Rebels made incremental progress in the three ensuing seasons: eight wins in 2013, nine last year and this season Ole Miss' first 10-win campaign since 2003. A program that was in a shambles when Freeze took over will finish this season in the top 10, seemingly set up for long-term success.
Ole Miss' budding success is about more than simply getting signatures from top prospects, Treadwell said. A welcoming culture convinces those players to join the Rebels program.
"Year after year, you get top guys that have been through something or want to come make a difference ... and coming here is a place to be," Treadwell said. "And we welcome anyone. And I think that we're building family. And it's more than football here. Outside of the field, where we're bonding, we're sharing life experiences, we're growing together. So I think that helped with the success on the field."
In the end, though, teams don't earn blowout wins in marquee bowl games without players as talented as Treadwell, who caught three touchdown passes, or Tunsil, who was a rock at left tackle and caught a touchdown pass of his own against the Cowboys.
That play, in which he was wide open and hauled in a 2-yard scoring pass from Kelly as time expired in the first half, was the first reception and first touchdown of Tunsil's football life.
"When we got on the 5, I kind of gave Coach Freeze that [sign] like, 'Hey Coach Freeze, you might want to call it on the 5,' and he did," Tunsil said of the play the Rebels originally designed for the Mississippi State game. "So it was a very special play, first touchdown of my career, so very exciting."
Tunsil and Treadwell did not offer much after the game about their NFL futures, saying they will make their decisions in the coming days.
"I'm going to make my decision probably next week when I sit down and talk to my family and see where it goes from there," Tunsil said.
The writing is on the wall. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. ranks Tunsil as the No. 5 overall prospect on his Big Board, with Nkemdiche coming in at No. 9 and Treadwell at No. 17. An underclassman with that kind of draft status would risk millions by coming back for another college season. It just wouldn't make sense.
If this was indeed their final game as Rebels, they have unquestionably left the Ole Miss program in a much better place than where they found it. With super prospects like No. 1 offensive tackle Greg Little and top quarterback Shea Patterson set to join the Rebels in the upcoming signing group, perhaps the dream class of 2013 will soon be surpassed by a new crop of upstarts.
"You have to continue to recruit at a high level, and I see no reason why we shouldn't stay relevant in the Southeastern Conference now," Freeze said. "And what that means from year to year, you never know because it's such a grinder, but I am excited. I think this is a new normal."
If that is the case, it's clear how Ole Miss established that norm. As this snowball continues to pick up momentum, it was national signing day 2013 that provided the first mighty shove at the top of the hill.