Ole Miss Rebels ready to play favorites in the SEC

OXFORD, Miss. -- Ole Miss Rebels defensive lineman D.J. Jones speaks from the heart when he talks about the cultural shift taking place in the Rebels' locker room. There's no change in expression as he talks. No highs or lows in his voice.

He's all business, and he's completely serious.

“Work for a championship," Jones said. "That’s pretty much it: work for a championship, a national championship, a playoff run.”

Yes, sounds like just another day in the SEC, but consider the source. This is Ole Miss. This is a program that dealt with mediocrity for the better part of half a century before coach Hugh Freeze arrived in December of 2012. The Rebels have just two 10-win seasons (2003, 2015) since 1971 and zero SEC championship appearances.

This is a team that now expects to beat Alabama -- which it has done in consecutive seasons -- and expects to be viewed by some as a league favorite. This is a team that will come off as cocky, but that's only because it's ready for the pressure of being a consistent winner. With 19 wins in two seasons, the Rebels think they're reloading in 2016, not rebuilding.

“It’s something we’ve worked for since Freeze got here and now that it’s actually happening it’s the new normal for us," defensive lineman Breeland Speaks said.

SEC doormats no more, Ole Miss has ascended near the top of the SEC, resting just below Alabama. With a proven winner at head coach, elite recruiting success and plenty of experience returning across the board, Ole Miss should enter the 2016 season as a true contender.

Alabama should and will retain its spot atop the preseason SEC rankings, but if Ole Miss isn't at the top of your list of teams to dethrone the Crimson Tide, you aren't paying attention. Eleven starters (eight on offense) and 61 lettermen (28 on both offense and defense) return.

The Rebels have a star quarterback in Chad Kelly. Their receiving corps and secondary are full of talent, experience and athleticism. The defensive line is arguably the deepest in the SEC. The running backs and offensive line could be issues, but people inside the program think there could be more athleticism on an O-line that needs to replace five starters -- including left tackle Laremy Tunsil. Still, there's been talk of reloading with more versatile inside pounders like Robert Conyers and Sean Rawlings standing with athletic freaks such as Javon Patterson, Jordan Sims and Rod Taylor.

Maybe the biggest change with this program is how it compares itself to Alabama. The Rebels respect Alabama, but they aren't afraid of the Tide. They've already beaten Bama (only SEC losses for Alabama in two seasons) -- now they want to be like Bama.

"It’s almost expected," Speaks said. "It’s like how Bama fans think they should beat Auburn every year, it’s kinda like we’re supposed to beat [Mississippi] State every year, we’re supposed to beat Bama, we're supposed to beat LSU. We got to get over that Arkansas hump, but ... we’re supposed to win now and nothing less is going to be taken.”

Obviously, the games must be played and no team has ever successfully won any sort of title in April. But this Ole Miss team oozes confidence. Since Freeze arrived, the Rebels have made four straight bowl games (3-1), risen as high as No. 3 in the rankings and made back-to-back New Year's Six bowls.

Months after trouncing Oklahoma State 48-20 to earn Freeze's first 10-win season at Ole Miss, the Rebels aren't looking to build during the season. They're ready to push through from start to finish with an evolving confidence that has helped transform this program.

“We have our winning ways, so we have to keep those," Jones said.

To do that, the Rebels, who are 34-18 under Freeze, have to conquer one of the nation's toughest schedules. According to ESPN's Football Power Index, Ole Miss owns the nation's second-toughest schedule. Ole Miss faces Florida State (10 wins in 2015) in Orlando, Florida; a home game with defending national champion Alabama; a home bout with Georgia (10 wins); road trips to Arkansas and LSU (17 combined wins) in consecutive weeks; and Texas A&M (eight wins) on the road.

The schedule is stacked, and the Rebels still need to learn how to get out of their own way (see: Florida and Memphis from 2015, Arkansas the last two years and LSU in 2014). Talent and experience only make up part of a championship recipe. There are still imperfections that could keep Ole Miss from its goals, but that's life above the radar. Players admit they'd rather be underdogs so, as Jones put it, they can "punch you in the mouth and you have the feeling of ‘What just happened?'" But this team also wants the respect it believes it's earned, and it wants to feel the weight of a champion.

“Guys are seeing it more now than they ever have," Speaks said. "We pretty much want to take the whole thing this year.”