(Part 7 of a 14-part SEC preview series)
For Ole Miss, a long-running NCAA investigation has overshadowed the usual anticipation surrounding the upcoming season.
In addition to facing 21 allegations from college athletics' governing body, the football program was dealt more misery when former head coach Houston Nutt filed a civil lawsuit against the university last week.
A self-imposed 2017 bowl ban prevents any chance of Ole Miss returning to postseason play this season.
On the field, the Rebels (5-7, 2-5) are trying to bounce back from a disappointing campaign.
The inability to close out games led to last fall's unraveling. Ole Miss squandered halftime leads against Florida State, Alabama and Auburn, and lost two more games (Arkansas and LSU) that were tied at intermission. Back-to-back lopsided losses at the hands of Vanderbilt and Mississippi State to finish out the season brought the Rebels' string of four straight bowl appearances to an end.
Sixth-year head coach Hugh Freeze has a new-look coaching staff following the offseason hirings of offensive coordinator Phil Longo, defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff and special teams coach Bradly Dale Peveto.
Offensively, the Rebels are minus six starters, including their starting quarterback, two top rushers and three of the top four returning receivers. Ole Miss ranked fourth in the Southeastern Conference in scoring (32.6 points per game), 12th in rushing (314.9 yards per game), first in passing (314.9 ypg) and third in total offense (464.3 ypg).
Ole Miss may again have to lean heavily on its aerial attack this season. Starting the final three games in place of the injured Chad Kelly, sophomore quarterback Shea Patterson completed 72-of-132 passes for 800 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions.
Senior Eugene Brazley (61 carries, 261 yards, 2 TDs) is the top returning rusher, although senior Jordan Wilkins and sophomore Eric Swinney have rejoined the team. Wilkins (72-379-4 in 2015) sat out last season for academic purposes, while Swinney was limited to one carry due to a torn ACL.
Sophomores Van Jefferson (49 receptions, 543 yards, 3 TDs) and A.J. Brown (29-412-2) head up an inexperienced receiving corps. Sophomore D.K. Metcalf, a hometown product out of Oxford High School, returns from an injury-shortened season.
Sophomore Octavious Cooley takes over for first-team All-SEC tight end Evan Engram.
Four offensive linemen have starting experience, though junior left guard Javon Patterson was the only one of the group to start every game last year. Junior Sean Rawlings moves to center after drawing seven starts at right tackle. Rounding out the holdovers are junior right guard Jordan Sims and senior right tackle Rod Taylor. Sophomore Greg Little slides into the left tackle spot.
There are issues to address defensively after ranking rock bottom in the SEC in scoring (34 ppg) and rushing (120 ypg) and 13th in the 14-team league in total defense (461.3 ypg).
Senior end Marquis Haynes (53 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 7 sacks, 1 INT, 3 forced fumbles) has led the team in sacks for three straight years. Sophomore end Qaadir Sheppard, junior tackle Breeland Speaks (28 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 sack) and sophomore nose tackle Benito Jones (39 tackles, 4.5 TFL) fill out the starting front.
Senior DeMarquis Gates (79 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 4 sacks), last year's leading tackler, is joined at linebacker by junior Detric Bing-Dukes (41 tackles, 3 TFL) and senior A.J. Moore (45 tackles, 5 TFL).
Junior free safety Zedric Woods (63 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 3 INTS) and sophomore rover Myles Hartsfield (43 tackles, 2 TFL) are holdovers in the secondary, with Jalen Julius (21 tackles) and Jaylon Jones (26 tackles) slated to start at the corners.
Senior kicker Gary Wunderlich was a bright spot for the Rebels last fall, connecting on 22-of-23 field goals, with his lone miss from 55 yards out. He also punted 21 times for a 43.7-yard average while sharing time with senior Will Gleeson (28-44.1).
2017 OLE MISS SCHEDULE
(All Times Central)
DATE OPPONENT TIME
Sept. 2 South Alabama 6:30 p.m.
Sept. 9 Tennessee Martin TBA
Sept. 16 at California 9:30 p.m.
Sept. 30 at Alabama* TBA
Oct. 7 Auburn* TBA
Oct. 14 Vanderbilt* (HC) TBA
Oct. 21 LSU* TBA
Oct. 28 Arkansas* TBA
Nov. 4 at Kentucky* TBA
Nov. 11 Louisiana-Lafayette TBA
Nov. 18 Texas A&M* TBA
Nov. 23 (Thanksgiving) at Mississippi State* 6:30 p.m.