Mississippi is the beneficiary of three outstanding recruiting classes under head coach Hugh Freeze, and those efforts are one of the reasons why the Rebels are legitimate contenders in the SEC West this season. With fifteen returning starters, including its top five tacklers and two best running backs from 2013, the Rebels are flaying under-the-radar in what is unquestionably the most talented conference in college football.
Mississippi’s offense revolves around quarterback Bo Wallace, who threw for 3,346 yards (64.8%; 18-10 ratio; 355 rushing yards) last season and broke the school’s total offense record originally held by Eli Manning. While Wallace struggled in the final six games of 2013 (7-9 ratio), I expect improved decision-making from the senior this season.
Wallace is supported by an excellent backfield consisting of I’Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton, both of whom were the team’s top two running backs last season. Mathers averaged 5.9 yards per rush attempt, while Walton averaged 5.6 yards per rush attempt. The Rebels’ offensive line loses three starters (Pierce Burton, Jared Duke and Evan Swindall), but I project even greater numbers from thus unit in 2014.
Mississippi also fields a very good wide receiving corp. despite losing three receivers from last season, including #1 target Donte Moncrief (#3 draft choice; Indianapolis). However, the return of SEC Freshman Player of the Year Laquon Treadwell and tight end Evan Engram provide Wallace with two extremely talented targets. I have the running back and receiving units ranked in the Top 30 nationally, and I would not be surprised to see a Top 25 finish by both come December.
The Rebels’ strength is their defense, which returns its top five tacklers from last year. The defensive line returns ten of its top 12 players from 2014, including the nation’s #1 recruit in Robert Nkemdiche. I project a Top 15 finish for Mississippi’s front seven. Mississippi’s linebacking corp. is finally healthy after last year’s injury-riddled campaign, and the Rebels field one of the best (if not the best) group of linebackers in college football. Transfer Christian Russell further bolsters an experienced unit that returns both Serderius Bryant and Tony Conner. I would not be surprised if this unit finishes the season ranked #1 in the country in every important category.
Rounding out the defense is an excellent secondary that welcomes back eight of its top ten performers from last season, including Cody Prewitt. Mississippi’s special teams are the biggest question mark on the team as the Rebels lose their kicker, punter and punt returner from last year’s squad. Coach Freeze has one of the most improved teams in college football, and I would not be shocked to see the Rebels defeat Alabama at home on October 4.