HOOVER, Ala. — As Hugh Freeze settled in before a battalion of cameras that would make a runway model run the other way, it wasn’t long before the question was lobbed.
Ole Miss won only two games in 2011. In his first season, the Rebels won seven. Could a five-game improvement be expected this season?
“I would say,” Freeze replied with the calm of a man defusing a bomb, “those are unreal expectations.”
It was a ridiculous question, though sillier queries have been posed at Southeastern Conference Football Media Days. The guy who asked Freeze if it was true he won four state girls basketball titles might have gotten the gold were it not for the fact that Freeze did just that while coaching high school football in Tennessee before embarking on his college coaching career eight short years ago.
But this is the reality Freeze and his band of Rebels have created for themselves.
It’s a virtual certainty no one ever got so much mileage out of a 7-6 football season. But the overall record tells only part of the tale.
Under Freeze, outgunned Ole Miss played Alabama off its cleats for a half. It lost to Texas A&M by just three points, Vanderbilt by one, and LSU in a 41-35 shootout tilted the Tigers’ way when Odell Beckham retraced Billy Cannon’s 89-yard punt return touchdown from 1959.
Convincing victories over archrival Mississippi State (41-24) in the Egg Bowl and Pittsburgh (38-17) in the BBVA Compass Bowl pushed Ole Miss over .500. The good vibes flowed from the regular season into recruiting season. The Rebels left rival schools slack-jawed, signing five-star prospects like defensive end Robert Nkemdiche (the nation’s consensus No. 1 player), wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil and safety Tony Conner.
Like the Rebels’ regular season, their recruiting haul wasn’t quite all that. Ole Miss signed a lot more three-star prospects (11) than fives, but the point was it beat out the likes of LSU, Florida, Alabama and Ohio State to land its top players. Can wins over the Tigers, Gators and Crimson Tide soon follow suit?
While visions of the SEC Championship Game and a BCS bowl swim through the heads of giddy Rebels fans, Freeze is trying to pump the brakes on such expectations before the express leaves the station — and perhaps crushes his team en route.
“I’m very careful,” he said. “I told every group that I went to this spring, I tell our team quite often, that unrealistic expectations always produce frustration.
“As we continue to strive to be relevant in the SEC West, we have made strides. But again, those young men we recruited to help us with our depth issues, they’re 18-year-old kids. How quick they’ll adjust to this game and this league, you really don’t know.”
It hasn’t been that long since the Rebels have been relevant. Ole Miss made consecutive Cotton Bowl trips in 9-4 seasons under former coach Houston Nutt in 2008 and ’09, largely on the strength of recruiting classes Freeze helped Ed Orgeron land.
But success on a truly epic scale has eluded the Rebels for a long time. Ole Miss won the last of its six SEC championships 50 years ago. Aside from A&M, Ole Miss is the only Western Division team never to play in the SEC title game.
To say the Rebels will bridge those gulfs in one leap this fall is asking a lot. The schedule, for starters, is a lot more menacing than the cuddly black bear named Rebel that replaced controversial Colonel Reb as the Ole Miss mascot.
Ole Miss plays four of its first five on the road: at Vandy (no gimmie), Texas, Alabama and Auburn. The Rebels then come home for six straight but start that run with Texas A&M and LSU. It’s the kind of slate that could pop the Ole Miss balloon in Hindenburg-like fashion before it even gets off the ground.
Stillthe , heady prospect that these Rebels could start an uprising that turns the SEC on its ear hole is more than intriguing.
“We want to be the team to turn it around,” Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace said. “We want to be the team that started something in Oxford.”
Rebel dreams take shape this summer. They’ll live or die this fall.