STAYING POWER?: Now ‘relevant,’ Rebels out to build on recent on-field success

Published 12:01 pm Thursday, December 10, 2015

Hugh Freeze has never been shy about his intentions at Ole Miss even when they seemed like a pipe dream.

Ole Miss’ fourth-year coach has been stubborn in his belief that he could make the Rebels relevant in the rugged Southeastern Conference Western Division and eventually get Ole Miss to the SEC Championship Game and into the national spotlight.

The Rebels are still waiting on that trip to Atlanta, but for the second straight year, they’ll get a nice consolation prize.

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Ole Miss is headed back to a New Year’s Six bowl to take on Oklahoma State in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, one of only five teams nationally to make it to an access bowl in back-to-back seasons. The Rebels had to be one of the SEC’s top two teams to give themselves a chance to do that, and once Alabama locked up the SEC title and its spot in the playoff with its win over Florida over the weekend, Ole Miss had ended its 46-year Sugar Bowl drought.

“Every metric within our program is on the way up, and this is another indicator that we are a relevant, quality, national program,” Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork said.

Ole Miss has won at least nine games for the second straight year under Freeze, who’s 33-18 since taking over a program that finished 2-10 in 2011 and didn’t have much depth or SEC talent to speak of. Freeze worked to change that with all three of his full recruiting classes being ranked in the top 25 nationally, including the best assembled in school history in 2013, and it’s helped him keep up with the giants of the conference.

Freeze doesn’t have a losing record against any division opponent. He’s 2-2 against Alabama, Auburn and LSU and 3-1 against rival Mississippi State. Ole Miss was as high as No. 4 in last year’s playoff rankings before losing two of its last three league games to settle for a Peach Bowl bid.

The Rebels never got that close to the top four this season with a defense that clearly wasn’t the same on the back end with the departures of Senquez Golson, Cody Prewitt, Serderius Bryant and D.T. Shackelford. Ole Miss took it on the chin against Florida and Memphis before October was over, but the Rebels won four of their last five games and put themselves within a fourth-and-25 against Arkansas of being the SEC Championship Game’s West representative.

“It’s extremely hard in this profession when you have disappointment,” Freeze said. “The onslaught of the outside voices, everyone has to block that out, and you have to move on to the next game and stay true and stay to the course of who you want to be and to your core values and to continue to motivate your players every week to build upon the things that you’re trying to teach them.”

Wanting more
Bjork is pleased with the progress the program has made under Freeze’s watch, but he’s not satisfied. There’s more work to do because “we can win championships here,” Bjork said.

But Bjork is thankful the program isn’t where it used to be.

“Until you get to this stage, you’re not going to be able to take the next step,” Bjork said of the Sugar Bowl berth. “I think it just validates that we’re on the right track, we’re building a ton of momentum around our program in all facets from recruiting to playing at a high level, to coaching at a high level, to facilities. Our fan base is growing every single day.”

Many of the significant pieces of that ’13 signing class will likely be on their way to make NFL millions after New Year’s Day, but Freeze and his staff are lining up a group of replacements that, at least on paper, could be the second-best class the Rebels have ever signed.

Now that Freeze has started the Rebels’ ascension among the SEC’s elite, the goal is to have staying power in a league where Ole Miss was an afterthought not too long ago.

“You can’t control injuries and can’t control some other things, but hopefully we’ll have one of those years where we stay healthy and that depth chart is where it needs to be and we can even improve upon what we’ve done the last two years, which has been special,” Freeze said.