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November will define future of Ole Miss’ football program

Matt Luke uttered the phrase in a recent press conference that’s so common among college football coaches this time of year that it’s become cliche: They remember what you do in November.

Ole Miss’ interim coach isn’t wrong necessarily. The Rebels have three games left starting with Louisiana on Saturday at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, but with all due respect to Luke and a group of players still fighting like heck to win as many as they can amid what’s otherwise an empty season, it won’t have anything to do with what Ole Miss does on the field.

November is shaping up to be the most important month for the program in recent history. With the final verdict in the long-running NCAA investigation set to be handed down and a coach to hire, it will define Ole Miss’ future.

Today marks eight weeks since Ole Miss’ hearing with the Committee on Infractions wrapped up in Covington, Kentucky, meaning the COI’s decision to either add on to the school’s self-imposed sanctions of a bowl ban and scholarship losses or let Ole Miss off with those penalties should come any day now given the committee’s standard timetable of making its decision six to eight weeks after a hearing.

Ole Miss will get a 24-hour notice from the NCAA that the decision is coming, but nobody there knows what it will be. More than anything, the Rebels are trying to avoid another postseason ban as they face 21 alleged rules violations with 15 of those being Level-I, or the most serious, charges, including the dreaded lack of institutional control. If that happens, players will be allowed to transfer and be immediately eligible at their next school, which would effectively force Ole Miss to start over from scratch.

Regardless what the decision is, Ole Miss — specifically athletic director Ross Bjork — needs the finality to come so it can move on with the coaching search, which will undoubtedly be affected if more severe sanctions are handed down. Bjork continues to insist Luke is still a candidate, but Luke is an underdog at this point with the school hiring outside help to assist with the search.

Bjork has started putting out feelers. SB Nation reported that South Florida coach Charlie Strong, Memphis’ Mike Norvell and UTSA’s Frank Wilson, a former Ole Miss assistant, have been on the receiving end of those while SMU’s Chad Morris and Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt are also of interest to influential boosters.

Central Florida’s Scott Frost, Troy’s Neal Brown and Iowa State’s Matt Campbell are other hot names that could be in line for bigger jobs, and with Florida already open and Arkansas, Tennessee, Texas A&M and Missouri also possibly making a change at the top, there figures to plenty of hiring competition in the SEC alone. Ole Miss has the money (it saved somewhere in the neighborhood of $16 million with the forced resignation of Hugh Freeze, who, by the way, made $4.8 million a year), the facilities and the recruiting territory that make it an attractive job, but who wants to leave where they are to start a total rebuilding job in the cutthroat SEC that would come with a multi-year bowl ban should that end up happening.

Still, someone will take a job paying millions that will come with the kind of grace period that most coaches aren’t afforded given the program’s current predicament. But the scholarships restrictions alone — and more that could be coming — won’t make it easy for Bjork, who’s in the process of making his first hire in one of the big three sports at Ole Miss, to find a coach that can stabilize the program and hire a staff that will recruit well enough to get it back to where it’s competitive against Alabama, Auburn, LSU and the other SEC powers.

Bjork also needs to make a hire quickly given the sport’s first early signing period is set to begin Dec. 20. I’d be surprised if it’s not done in the days following the Egg Bowl on Thanksgiving. Get it right, and there’s hope of one day winning big again. Get it wrong, and there may be no recovering from it.

College football’s silly season has already started, but for an Ole Miss program with everything at stake, November is about as serious as it gets.

Davis Potter is the Ole Miss beat writer for the EAGLE. Contact him at davis.potter@oxfordeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DavisEPotter.