Ole Miss Rebels season preview

Previewing the 2014 season for the Ole Miss Rebels:

2013 record: 8-5, beat Georgia Tech in the Music City Bowl

Final grade for 2013 season: Because of the team’s inconsistency, a B- seems fair. Eight wins isn’t a bad result for second-year coach Hugh Freeze, especially when you look at the close losses to Auburn and Texas A&M, but losing back-to-back games to Missouri and Mississippi State when the offense combined for 20 points isn’t good enough.

Key losses: WR Donte Moncrief, RB Jeff Scott, C Evan Swindall, OL Jared Duke, OL Pierce Burton, K Andrew Ritter

Key returnees: QB Bo Wallace, WR Laquon Treadwell, TE Evan Engram, DL Robert Nkemdiche, DE C.J. Johnson, S Cody Prewitt, S Tony Conner

Projected 2014 starters: QB Wallace, RB Jaylen Walton, TE Engram, WR Treadwell, WR Quincy Adeboyejo, WR Vince Sanders, LT Laremy Tunsil, LG Aaron Morris, C Ben Still, RG Justin Bell, RT Robert Conyers, DE Johnson, DT Nkemdiche, DT Issac Gross, DE Fadol Brown, OLB Serderius Bryant, MLB Deterrian Shackelford, CB Senquez Golson, CB Mike Hilton, S Prewitt, ROV Trae Elston, NB Conner

Instant impact newcomers: OL Rod Taylor, S C.J. Hampton

Breakout player: Really, Engram broke out last season. That is, if you were paying attention to the first half of the season and saw him set an Ole Miss record for touchdowns from a freshman tight end (three). However, he injured his ankle and missed five games down the stretch. As Freeze said, the offense changed with him gone. If Engram can stay healthy, the offense and his own personal numbers should improve greatly.

Biggest question mark: The defense is talented and deep. The offense is loaded with skilled players at quarterback, receiver, tight end and running back. But at the one position where you need experience to win in the SEC, the offensive line, Ole Miss is lacking. With three starters gone and Austin Golson no longer with the program, the Rebs are thin up front. Morris should make for a nice addition, and Tunsil is quickly becoming one of the best linemen in the SEC, but it might take some time to work out the kinks on the line of scrimmage for Ole Miss.

Upset special: Can one top-25 team upset another? Sure, especially when the opponent is Alabama. Ole Miss has struggled with the Crimson Tide in recent years, but this season could be the time to change all that. Alabama is breaking in a new quarterback, two new offensive linemen and three new starters in the secondary. Throw in the fact that coach Nick Saban still hasn’t solved the no-huddle offense, and you have a recipe for an upset. If Wallace can limit his turnovers and push the pace on offense, the Rebels will have a chance, especially at home on Oct. 4.

Key stat: If there is one stat that means anything in football, it’s turnovers. Ole Miss was found lacking in that department last season, coming in 58th nationally with a +1 turnover margin. Of the Rebels' 21 turnovers on offense, 10 came from Wallace interceptions. Another turnover, the most crippling of the season, came when Wallace fumbled in an overtime loss to Mississippi State. If he can take care of the football, Ole Miss has a chance to compete in the SEC West. If not, it won't matter how much talent the Rebels put on the field, because you can’t win games giving the ball away.

They said it: “To be very candid, I think the journey that we've been on, I think it's faster than I thought possible. ... We had some very nice wins last year: going to Texas and winning, beating No. 6 LSU in the beginning of the year. We didn't finish the season like we wanted, obviously. But with the recruiting that our coaches have done and with those two successful seasons, there's no question that the expectations are raised. I think most fans that are close to our program realize that we're still maybe a year or two away of looking like a total SEC team in the depth chart. But I said on day one that my expectations were to make Ole Miss very relevant in the SEC West. And I think this year we should be that. That's my expectation, is that we should be competitive in every single game.” -- Freeze at SEC media days.

Preseason predictions:

ESPN Stats & Info: 7.7 wins

Bovada over-under: 7.5

Our take: The schedule could be worse. Getting Boise State to start the season would have been a mammoth undertaking in past years. But with coach Chris Peterson gone, now is the time to take on the giant of all giants among mid-majors. That aside, the rest of the non-conference schedule (Louisiana-Lafayette, Memphis, Presbyterian) should result in wins, and drawing Tennessee and Vanderbilt from the SEC East is more than any coach could ask for. If Ole Miss can beat the teams it should (Arkansas, for instance), go .500 in the others (Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Texas A&M) and get revenge in the Egg Bowl against an evenly matched Mississippi State, then a 10-win season is a reasonable proposition.