OXFORD, Mississippi — In his two seasons at Mississippi, coach Hugh Freeze has managed to build a program that's talented and capable of winning big games.
It remains to be seen if the Rebels are a program that can actually win the Southeastern Conference.
Freeze isn't shying away from the program's increased expectations, but he also knows that the margin between an SEC champion and a middle-of-the-pack program isn't much.
"You need a ball to bounce your way, to make a field goal here, to not miss one here," Freeze said. "You're going to need all of that to go from good to great. There's nothing wrong with being good. We're striving to be great."
Ole Miss returns 15 starters from a team that finished with an 8-5 record last season, including nine on the defense. Senior quarterback Bo Wallace comes back for his third straight season as the starter and has a chance to become the school's passing leader.
Wallace has dealt with an injury to his throwing shoulder — and the subsequent recovery from surgery for that same shoulder — for nearly his entire tenure at Ole Miss. But the 6-foot-5, 215-pounder says he's finally healthy for the first time in nearly two years.
Even with the health issues, he's thrown for 6,340 yards over two seasons.
"I feel as good as I've ever felt except the first year coming in," Wallace said. "I feel 100 percent. Throwing the ball, I can push the ball down the field more. I'm anxious to get out there and start."
The team will also need a talented group of sophomores — led by receiver Laquon Treadwell, defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche and offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil — to improve upon their impressive freshmen seasons.
Ole Miss opens its season with a neutral site game against Boise State on Aug. 28 in Atlanta.
"We have to create some more depth," Freeze said. "We know what some of our guys can do. Some guys, physically, I really like where they are but they need to develop some mentally."
5 things to watch in Mississippi's season:
THE WALLACE FINALE: Veteran quarterback Bo Wallace has had two good seasons at Ole Miss, throwing for 6,340 yards and leading the program to 15 wins and two straight bowl victories. He expects his third season to be even better. Wallace fought an injury to his throwing shoulder during his sophomore season and then struggled some with the recovery during his junior season. Now he feels it's completely healthy and that should allow him to throw with greater accuracy downfield.
SUPER SOPHOMORES: Ole Miss had one of the most highly-regarded recruiting classes in the nation in 2013 and several players immediately contributed. Now standout sophomores like Laquon Treadwell (receiver), Robert Nkemdiche (defensive tackle) and Laremy Tunsil (left tackle) will be expected to be among the best players on the team.
EXPERIENCED DEFENSE: The Rebels return nine starters on the defensive side of the ball and should be especially good in the secondary. All-American Cody Prewitt returns at safety and he's joined by experienced and talented holdovers like Trae Elston, Senquez Golson, Tony Connor, Mike Hilton and Derrick Jones.
OFFENSIVE LINE QUESTIONS: Ole Miss returns experience at almost every position on the field, but offensive line is one big exception. Laremy Tunsil and Justin Bell are two mainstays, but the Rebels are replacing three starters from last season. The return of guard Aaron Morris — after he missed almost all of last season because of a knee injury — should help, but Freeze is hoping for very quick development from guys like Fahn Cooper, Robert Conyers and Rod Taylor.
A BIG BACK: Ole Miss struggled badly last year in 3rd-and-short situations, mainly because the team didn't have a true power running back. The Rebels hope 220-pound transfer Akeem Judd can help in those situations and Freeze has also experimented with formations that include safety Anthony Alford (212 pounds) or tight end Jeremy Liggins (296 pounds) under center.
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