Just like that, Ole Miss is now Shea Patterson's team.
Ole Miss self-imposed a one-year postseason ban in February after it received an NCAA notice of allegations. The school was accused of exhibiting a lack of institutional control, while Freeze was charged with failing to adequately monitor his coaching staff. Heading into the 2017 campaign, this team already had zero postseason aspirations. No SEC championship possibilities. No bowl game. The program only had pride to play for, and with Freeze's embarrassing dismissal, pride might only take this Rebels team so far during a mess of a 2017 season.
But that's where Patterson has to come in and be bigger, louder and more in charge. With all the distractions involving the coaching staff, the players were always going to be tasked with preserving the winning mindset of a fragile locker room. When you have little to play for, the players are the ones who dictate a team's flow and work ethic. The players decide how hard to push and how much to care.
More importantly, the quarterback decides that.
"I'm so thankful to have such a great support staff in teammates and coaches that are going to help me become that guy," Patterson said at SEC media days last week. "I'm born to do that."
Patterson, who threw for 880 yards and six touchdowns in his three games last season, certainly had the right mindset last week, but that was before Freeze left the program. He made those statements when he had Freeze to lean on for guidance within the walls of Ole Miss' football facility.
Patterson isn't on his own. Interim coach Matt Luke and veteran players will certainly help him out, but this is his locker room. His words and his actions will ring louder and mean more to his teammates amid the turmoil. It's a blessing and curse for Patterson, but many have expressed confidence in him. Last week, his teammates at SEC media days were in favor of Patterson owning the locker room and taking over as the voice of the team.
"He's the first one in and last one out," offensive lineman Javon Patterson said. "Things like that really show up to us. His leadership and being vocal is big."
Added defensive lineman Breeland Speaks: "You want to see the quarterback in the front, leading. He's going to have to do that for us, and I feel like he will. When he has to talk he does, and people listen."
This won't be easy for Patterson. He might have been one of the top recruits in the 2016 class and possess all the talent to be a superstar, but he just lost one of his biggest fans and strongest supporters. Patterson made it clear that Freeze was a big part of the reason he went to Ole Miss, and a big reason why he decided to stay in Oxford when the NCAA investigation intensified this spring.
Now, Freeze is gone.
Patterson has to get over his absence, and accept that the man who brought him to Oxford wasn't necessarily the man Patterson thought he was. When talking about Freeze last week, Patterson talked about Freeze being "consistent" in who he was, and singled him out as "a man of faith." So Thursday's revelations were likely tough for Patterson to stomach.
Patterson hasn't commented on Freeze's resignation, but his father, Sean, spoke to The (Jackson) Clarion-Ledger on Friday and discussed his son's close relationship with Luke. Sean also considered this is an opportunity for Shea to wrap his fingers tighter around this team.
"It's his opportunity to lead. ... He's a competitor, and it will probably drive him more to lead things," Sean said. "I think these things rock you for a little bit, but you've got a job to do.
"Matt is a guy that needs the help and it's going to be his first opportunity, and Shea is going to be the guy that needs to help him."
Freeze knew how special Shea Patterson was well before he stepped on campus. Back then, he knew he was getting a premier player and leader. As drama continued to swirl around his program, Freeze quickly realized that Patterson had to become the face of the program. In his final public appearance as Ole Miss' head coach, Freeze made that perfectly clear.
"It has to happen," Freeze said.
And if it doesn't, this already delicate locker room could crumble at the first sign of adversity.