BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Youth was served in the BBVA Compass Bowl on Saturday, an emphatic 38-17 Ole Miss win in what was all but a Rebel home game at Legion Field.
By: Ben Garrett, OMSpirit.com Columnist
Head coach Hugh Freeze engineered a five-game turnaround in his first season. Ole Miss was 2-10 a year ago. With its win over Pittsburgh, it secured its seventh win of the season and first winning season since 2009.
“This advances our journey a bit and the process that we’re on to be relevant in the SEC West, which is our goal year-in and year-out,” Freeze said. “To be where we are in year one far surpasses certainly the prognosticators, their picks, that all had us 2-10 or whatever they had us.”
From offense to defense to special teams, the Rebels were led this season by youth.
A sophomore in his first year at Ole Miss, Bo Wallace, who was arguably Ole Miss’ offensive MVP this season and named MVP of the Compass Bowl, started at quarterback in all 13 games. He was 22 of 32 for 151 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions Saturday.
On defense, redshirt freshman linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche led Ole Miss in tackles for the year. Trae Elston, a true freshman, had five total tackles against Pitt, good for second on the team. I’tavius Mathers led the team with 96 yards rushing and a touchdown.
On and on and on. C.J. Johnson, Donte Moncrief, Cody Prewitt, Elston, Mike Hilton, Jaylen Walton, Mathers and Issac Gross are all underclassmen, the latter four true freshmen. They’ll make up the core of the Rebels next season, when Freeze leads a team with heightened expectations into his second year.
“Our guys really chose to buy in and decide that we can determine who we want to be,” Freeze said. “I knew that we were going to attack each week. I was very clear with our goal in year one, and that was to play passionate football. I don’t doubt one single game that our kids didn’t give us great effort and passion for our university.”
They’ll need help, of course. And with national signing day quickly approaching Feb. 6, reinforcements are on the way in the form of what could be the best recruiting class Ole Miss has ever signed.
Robert Nkemdiche, the brother of Denzel and the top overall prospect in the country, was in attendance for the Compass Bowl, as was five-star wide receiver Laquon Treadwell. Ole Miss leads for both players.
Other names of interest include five-star safety Antonio Conner, five-star defensive end Carl Lawson, five-star lineman Laremy Tunsil (a pipedream, in my opinion), four-star defensive end Elijah Daniel, four-star offensive lineman Denver Kirkland and others.
Conner was expected to announce between Ole Miss and Alabama on Friday at the Under Armour All-America game in Orlando, Fla. Those plans changed, however, with Conner having moved his announcement to Feb. 3.
Ole Miss still feels good about its position with Conner, despite a push from Alabama. Daniel has consistently listed Ole Miss among his finalists, as has Kirkland, Lawson and Tunsil.
Ole Miss currently holds a top-20 class, according to Scout.com.
“So far, this recruiting class has turned out to look extremely good, extremely great for our future,” Denzel Nkemdiche said. “But we never really know until February 6th. At the same time, though, the players that are considering us that we’re hoping to land, they’re going to come in and solidify some spots and back some people up.”
As for Robert, Denzel didn’t have an update.
“He’s in Birmingham right now,” he said. “I’m waiting just like y’all. I still feel great about it.”
Think about this for a second: Ole Miss is recruiting at a level not seen since Ed Orgeron roamed the sidelines; a national recruiting strategy, with Freeze believing Ole Miss can be more than it’s ever been. Difference is, Freeze has a track record of wins to back up his hot air.
He’s off to a good start. No one expected a winning season and a bowl appearance in year one. No one. Freeze had a pass, remember, because Houston Nutt had left Ole Miss in shambles, the program broken.
These are different days.
Say Ole Miss lands half of the top-ranked players it’s in on, well, that’s a top-12 class, without question. And for a team already reliant on young players, such a class could catapult Ole Miss back into the national conversation. This from an Ole Miss team entering the year only hoping for relevance. Nothing but relevance.
Ole Miss fans have every reason to believe again, every reason to look to the future with unbridled optimism. Because this program, a program left for dead after the disaster that was last season, has rebounded in impressive fashion.
A trip to Atlanta, Ga., for the Southeastern Conference title game doesn’t seem so far-fetched anymore, does it? I certainly wouldn’t expect as much next season, but in 2014, the current sophomore class — heralded two years ago — will be seniors. Nkemdiche (Robert, not Denzel) will be a sophomore. Treadwell, too, and whoever else decides to sign in February.
Ole Miss’ game against Boise State in the Georgia Dome to open 2014 could very well be a springboard for what could be a memorable, program-changing season.
But it all starts with improvement in 2013. And with how the 2012 season progressed and finished here at the “Old Gray Lady” of Legion Field, there’s no reason to believe next season won’t be even better.