Meridian Star

Sports

January 2, 2014

Ole Miss improves, eyes even bigger gains

At times this season Mississippi looked like one of the best teams in the Southeastern Conference. Then there were the times when the Rebels looked like one of the worst.

    Turns out the truth was somewhere in the middle.

    That's fine for now, but it probably won't be in the near future.

    Ole Miss finished with an 8-5 record after a 25-17 victory over Georgia Tech in the Music City Bowl on Monday in Nashville, Tenn. It was the program's second straight winning season under coach Hugh Freeze, and the 44-year-old was rewarded in December with a new contract that lasts through 2017 and will pay $3 million next season.

    The school is also in the midst of a major fundraising project that includes a $12.5 million renovation for the program's Manning Practice Facility. More money will be spent on announced plans to update and expand Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.

    It's all needed in the SEC's never-ending arms race. But all that added cash also means added expectations.

    "We are committed to placing our football program among the SEC's best and make the Ole Miss family proud," Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork said when Freeze's new contract was announced.

    Winning the Music City Bowl was certainly another encouraging step in the daunting task of trying to rise into the SEC's elite. Ole Miss has won six straight bowl games.

    "There's no question that winning a bowl game is very advantageous to you heading into recruiting and the offseason for the confidence of these young men," Freeze said after Monday's game.

    Freeze has produced quick improvement in Oxford over the past two seasons, bringing stability and winning to a program that finished 2-10 in 2011, including 0-8 in the SEC.

    And the foundation has been laid for future success. Several veterans will be back for another season, including quarterback Bo Wallace, who threw for 3,346 yards, 18 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in his second full year as the starter.

    The Rebels could also return productive receiver Donte Moncrief and All-American safety Cody Prewitt, though both will at least consider leaving for the NFL.

    Wallace had surgery on his throwing shoulder last offseason and spent most of the spring and summer recovering. But this year, the 6-foot-4, 209-pounder can focus on refining his game.

    "I'm just really excited for the offseason, to actually have an offseason to get better," Wallace said. "Last year I just had to try to get to the point that I was at after the shoulder surgery so I'm just really happy excited for it to get with (the strength and conditioning coaches). I'm going to work really hard this offseason."

    Freeze coaxed a consensus top 10 recruiting class to Oxford back last winter and many of them — including defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, left tackle Laremy Tunsil, safety Tony Connor and receiver Laquon Treadwell — had a stellar first season.

    Another quality class is expected in February.

    But it's still unclear if that will give Ole Miss enough talent to regularly compete with schools like Alabama, Auburn and Texas A&M. Freeze has a 15-11 overall mark with the Rebels, but just a 6-10 mark in league play.

    The Rebels had some impressive victories this season, including a last-second triumph over LSU and a dominant road win over Texas. But that was balanced by a couple disappointing setbacks — especially an overtime loss to rival Mississippi State.

    It's a reminder of just how far the Rebels have to climb to join the SEC's elite.

    But Monday's win over Georgia Tech was another sign that there's still ample reason for optimism.

    "It is a very positive step," Freeze said.

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