Biggest games in 2013: at Vanderbilt (Aug. 29), at Alabama (Sept. 28), vs. Texas A&M (Oct. 12), at Mississippi State (Nov. 28)
Biggest question mark heading into 2013: The enthusiasm is sky high around Oxford, Miss., these days as Hugh Freeze has injected life into a program that had spent much of the past decade floundering in the SEC. Thanks to a surprisingly competitive 2012 season and a recruiting haul that turned heads around the country, the Rebels are back on the map. But with recognition comes expectations. And despite Freeze's best attempts at trading short-term hopes for long-term goals, his team has to sustain the momentum the program has built and remain competitive despite an obvious lack of depth and a difficult schedule. The young talent he's assembled on campus -- big names like Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell and Laremy Tunsil -- won't have long to adjust to the limelight and learn how to play at the next level. How Ole Miss does this season might depend on it.
Forecast: For all the attention Ole Miss has gotten nationally of late, the fact remains that the Rebels finished the 2012 season a .500 team trying to get into a bowl game. Playing competitive football against the likes of Alabama and LSU is one thing. Winning those games is another thing altogether. With many of its key pieces returning from a season ago, Ole Miss has the talent to challenge the league's best, but conquering a stacked SEC West seems improbable the way the schedule is laid out with early challenges against Vanderbilt, Texas, Alabama and Texas A&M all coming in the first six weeks.
Until the SEC changes its rules, Ole Miss is going to push the tempo on offense. And with quarterback Bo Wallace back under center and potential All-SEC running back Jeff Scott and wide receiver Donte Moncrief around him, the Rebels have the right parts to orchestrate their supercharged attack. How Wallace matures and how his repaired shoulder heals will determine how far the offense goes. He told reporters at SEC media days that he's pain free, but the coaching staff has been cautious in practice, limiting the number of throws he makes each day. Getting healthy is his first step. Making better decisions and cutting down on his 17 interceptions from a year ago is the next.
If Ole Miss wants to take the next step, it must come on defense, where the Rebels finished 11th in the SEC stopping the pass. Denzel Nkemdiche is blossoming into a star at linebacker, Antonio Conner has a high ceiling at safety and defensive end Channing Ward has shown flashes of brilliance. C.J. Johnson and Mike Marry aren’t household names yet, but they soon could be. The key, however, is the improvement of the secondary. Losing Nickolas Brassell hurts, but the good news is there’s almost no turnover as its top three interception leaders return.