Posted: 8:00 a.m. Monday, July 22, 2013
It's become common knowledge around college football that the second year of a coach's tenure is when the rubber really hits the road.
Guys like Bob Stoops, Jim Tressel, Urban Meyer, and Gene Chizik won national championships in their second seasons at schools. Other coaches like Pete Carroll, Mark Richt, and Dan Hawkins (at Boise State, anyway) made leaps in their second years that sustained well into the future. Closer to home for Ole Miss, Dan Mullen went from 5-7 his first year to 9-4 the second at the School Down South.
Now, it's Hugh Freeze's second season in Oxford. By any conventional sportswriter's definition, the program has momentum. He improved the program's win column by five last season, making and winning a bowl after a two year gap. He landed a number of high profile recruits, including the nation's consensus top player in DE Robert Nkemdiche. The preseason consensus has the Rebels at fourth in the rough SEC West, and right now they're closer to LSU a spot ahead of them than Mississippi State a spot behind them.
Things are looking up at Ole Miss, but that doesn't mean uncertainty is gone from the program. Freeze's job in Year 1 looked good, but he still only has three seasons as a head coach under his belt (two of them in NAIA). So far so good, but that's not very far. It's always better to sign highly touted recruits than not, but you never know how much players will be able to do as a true freshman. For instance Florida signed a defensive end as the nation's consensus top recruit in 2010, and the Gators are still waiting for Ronald Powell to make an impact. Pitfalls are still out there for Ole Miss.
This season should probably be considered a success with a repeat of last year's bowl appearance and win. The schedule is set up for a slow start with a strong finish. Four of the Rebels' first five games are on the road, and the first half of the schedule includes Texas (away), Alabama (away), and Texas A&M.; The second half only features only LSU as a likely loss. The range of the schedule essentially comes down to the two roughly tossup games against East opponents Vanderbilt and Missouri. Sweep them, and eight wins before December is entirely plausible. Drop them both, and suddenly winning the Egg Bowl in Starkville is necessary to go bowling.
In any event, this year is almost beside the point. Ole Miss really should try to make the postseason, if for no other reason than to get the extra bowl practice, but this year isn't the big one that counts. The program is building for the future, and it's probably going to take more than two seasons to fully dig out of the mess Houston Nutt left behind. There will be plenty of pundits out there declaring the season a disappointment if the team goes 6-6 again, but probably no one should listen to them.
In Oxford, it's less about this year and more about next year. And the year after. That's when the monster 2013 signing class should really pay its big dividends, and more potentially special classes in 2014 and 2015 can help it out. But 2013? It's gravy, as long as nothing curdles in the pot while its being made.