COLUMN: Freeze’s vision of program’s prominence becoming reality

Published 6:01 am Sunday, January 3, 2016

NEW ORLEANS — For any follower of Ole Miss football, the Rebels’ latest stop on their journey was one to savor.

Chad Kelly did Chad Kelly things, Laquon Treadwell did Laquon Treadwell things, Ole Miss went for the jugular with a where-did-that-come-from touchdown to Laremy Tunsil, and the Rebels ran past, over, around and through Oklahoma State to the kind of win on the kind of stage this program and its fans have long yearned for with a 48-20 pasting of Oklahoma State in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Friday that really wasn’t that close.

For the man who started this journey five Decembers ago, it was a moment where the raw emotion of what had just happened stayed with him through the rain of confetti during the postgame trophy presentation and well into the Louisiana night.

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“I will probably cry a little bit with my wife and kids,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze told reporters once settled in at his postgame press conference, “because just being raised in this state and knowing what the Sugar Bowl meant to the SEC and to be able to come and win the first champions bowl for the SEC and the Big 12 is a big, big deal.”

The journey. If you follow this program closely — and if you’re reading this, I’m assuming you do — you know what that is by now.

It’s how Freeze has repeatedly referenced his vision to take what was a dump of a program when he took over and make it relevant in the toughest division of the nation’s toughest conference and, by default, make it relevant again on a national scale.

Freeze described it as being “in the wilderness” during his opening press conference after being hired in December 2011, inheriting a program that had just finished 2-10 with an embarrassing loss to then-Division I-AA member Jacksonville State the year before and, outside of a few Cotton Bowl wins, hadn’t done anything of recent significance.

But Freeze went to work to change that.

His first team at Ole Miss, one left depleted of talent and depth by Houston Nutt, went 7-6. The next year, the Rebels went 8-5. With the impact of a historic 2013 recruiting class starting to show, Ole Miss went 9-4 a season ago. This year, the steady progress resulted in the Rebels’ first 10-win season since 2003 and their first Sugar Bowl berth since 1970.

There were signs pointing to this. After a decade of waiting, Ole Miss finally delivered a win over big, bad Alabama last season and fought through a late rough patch to make it to a New Year’s Six Bowl, though the Rebels were on the other side of a blowout against TCU.

All of that was nice, but coming back and beating Alabama again, on its own field? Beating Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Mississippi State in the same season for the first time ever? And getting back to a New Year’s Six bowl to take all of that frustration out on what had been a potent Oklahoma State team all season for the whole country to see?

That’s validation.

The Rebels will likely end up ranked in the top 10 in all the major polls, and Freeze and his staff will soon start preparing for next season. The next obvious step in the journey is to get to the SEC Championship Game, something the Rebels haven’t done since the game’s inception in 1992, but like all teams, Ole Miss is losing some key pieces.

Freeze’s unmatched recruiting success at the school should help.

We know Robert Nkemdiche’s headed to the NFL, but fans got a glimpse at next season and beyond on the interior of the defensive line with junior D.J. Jones and freshman Breeland Speaks wreaking havoc on the Cowboys’ offensive front.

Laremy Tunsil and Laquon Treadwell insist they haven’t decided whether they’ll stay or go, but with some mock drafts projecting Tunsil to be the No. 1 pick in next year’s draft, he’s as good as gone. Verbal commitment Greg Little, the nation’s top-ranked offensive tackle prospect in this year’s class, will take over should he actually sign and has the talent to follow Tunsil’s likely three-and-out path.

Chad Kelly will still have Evan Engram and Damore’ea Stringfellow as his top targets among maybe the SEC’s deepest group of pass-catchers should Treadwell bolt. And the Rebels have five-star quarterback Shea Patterson, who many recruiting services have ranked as the country’s top prep quarterback, waiting in the wings until Kelly’s done.

Now that they’re out of the wildnerness, who’s to say the Rebels can’t stay out?

“The Ole Miss brand now is probably as strong as it has ever been,” Freeze said. “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. … I think this is the new normal.”

At least that’s what it’s starting to feel like.