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Ole Miss season preview: Can Rebels again increase win total?

Hugh Freeze and Chad Kelly in 2015
JUSTIN FORD/USA TODAY SPORTS

Ole Miss has won 27 games in the past three seasons, the best three-season stretch since 1960-62 for the Rebels, and this has the potential to be another big season. The Rebels look to have the best offense in the league, and they can make a ton of national noise early because of a tough September schedule.

This is coach Hugh Freeze’s fifth season, and the Rebels have improved their win total each year under Freeze – seven wins in 2012, eight in ’13, nine in ’14 and 10 in ’15. If Ole Miss can get to 11 this season, it just find itself in the College Football Playoff.

Offense

chadkelly vs. arkansas 2015rk

Chad Kelly is the headliner for what should be a prolific Ole Miss offense. MATT BUSH/USA TODAY SPORTS

BACKFIELD: Senior Chad Kelly is the best quarterback in the SEC and one of the best in the nation. He would seem to have a legitimate chance to set the SEC single-season passing record. The mark is 4,275 by Kentucky's Tim Couch in 1998; Kelly threw for 4,042 yards last season. He also provides a running threat and is the Rebels' leading returning rusher. The tailback spot remains a mystery with the graduation of leading rusher Jaylen Walton and the ineligibility of potential starter Jordan Wilkins. Akeem Judd is a physical, between-the-tackles runner who rushed for 425 yards last season. Big things are expected from redshirt freshman Eric Swinney, who sat out last season after foot surgery. He has good speed and big-play ability.

RECEIVERS: If you look at the 2016 NFL draft, one might think this would be an area of concern after the Rebels lost Laquon Treadwell and Cody Core, who combined for 120 catches and 15 scores. But the Rebels should be just fine. Holdovers Quincy Adeboyejo, Damore'ea Stringfellow and Markell Pack will team with redshirt freshman Van Jefferson to give the Rebels a talented quartet. True freshmen D.K. Metcalf and A.J. Brown should be part of the rotation, as well. Plus, there's senior Evan Engram, who might be the best pass-catching tight end in the nation. He can line up as a traditional tight end, but is at his best in the slot or out wide. Kelly does not lack for receiving weapons.

LINE: There is depth and talent, though it could take a while for everyone to jell. The five linemen who started in the Sugar Bowl rout of Oklahoma State are gone. Senior Robert Conyers has been the glue that has held this group together and he will start at center. The likely starting guards are Jordan Sims and Javon Patterson. The tackle spots are a bit unsettled. Rod Taylor, who had an off-field issue in the offseason, can play guard and tackle. He, redshirt freshman Alex Givens and five-star true freshman Greg Little seem to be the top candidates at left tackle. Sean Rawlings is the leading contender on the right side, but that could change depending upon how things on the left side shake out. The tough early-season schedule makes it imperative that the linemen come together quickly.

Defense

marquis haynes in 2015

Marquis Haynes had 10 sacks last season and is one of the premier edge rushers in the nation. COURTESY OLE MISS ATHLETICS

LINE: While losing Robert Nkemdiche and Channing Ware will hurt, there are plenty of options. Coaches are excited by the return of senior NT Issac Gross, who missed the 2015 season with a neck injury. Junior E Marquis Haynes, who might be the most athletic player on defense, led the team with 10 sacks last season and is one of the best pure pass rushers in the nation. Senior D.J. Jones, sophomore Breeland Speaks and true freshman Benito Jones should be part of the rotation in the middle. Jones has all the tools; he just needs consistency. One question is the health of senior E Fadol Brown, who suffered a broken left foot last season and still isn't 100 percent. Senior John Youngblood would start in Brown's stead, but he isn't really a down-to-down player. Sophomore Victor Evans and true freshman Charles Wiley are expected to help if Brown's absence of Brown.

LINEBACKERS: Oregon State graduate transfer Rommel Mageo is a welcomed addition; he led OSU with 87 tackles last fall and will play alongside junior DeMarquis Gates, who led the Rebels with 76 tackles last season. After that, questions remain. JC transfer Detric Bing-Dukes, who began his career at Georgia before moving on to Iowa Western CC, and senior Terry Caldwell should be part of the rotation. Caldwell was a JC transfer who had a difficult time adapting to the FBS level last season. Junior Tayler Polk will help with depth.

SECONDARY: Gone are Mike Hilton and Trae Elston, who combined for 140 tackles and six interceptions last season. But senior Tony Conner, who missed eight games last season with injuries, is back, and that is a big boost. Conner plays the "Huskie" spot for the Rebels, a hybrid safety/outside linebacker role, and is a big-time in-the-box safety. Kendarius Webster and Tony Bridges return at cornerback; they combined for four picks and 20 pass breakups last season, and Webster had a terrific spring. Safety is a bit more problematic. Junior C.J. Hampton, who has yet to show the flash Rebels fans expected, should be the free safety, but the rover spot (strong safety) might be manned by a true freshman. Junior C.J. Moore seems likely to miss the season with a torn pectoral, so true freshmen Myles Hartsfield and Deontay Anderson look to be the top candidates. Hartsfield attended prep school last fall and went through spring practice. Sophomore Zedrick Woods can play both safety spots and figures to see appreciable time.

Special teams

Junior Gary Wunderlich was 19-of-25 on field-goal attempts, with a long of 48. Australian Will Gleeson returns as the punter, but he struggled last season, when Ole Miss went back and forth with the rugby vs. traditional style punts. Ole Miss still finished second in the league in net punting, and the kickoff coverage was good, too. The return games, though, need help. Brown and Metcalf could receive looks at returning punts and kickoffs.

Schedule

The Rebels are in the SEC West, so the level of difficulty always will be high. If Ole Miss can survive September, it could be a special year. If it doesn't, a potential "special season" could be over before the month ends. Ole Miss opens with Florida State in Orlando on Labor Day night, and the third and fourth weekends of the season see Alabama and Georgia, respectively, inside the friendly confines of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Should the Rebels end September with one or fewer losses, it could mean a big year, though there are tough road games against LSU, Arkansas and Texas A&M. If it avoids an early-season meltdown, Ole Miss will be a bowl team for the fifth consecutive season; the last time that happened was 1967-71, which was part of a run that saw the Rebels go bowling every season from 1957-71.

Facts and figures

Last season: 10-3 overall, 6-2 in SEC; beat Oklahoma State in Sugar Bowl
Past five years, overall: 36-28
Past five years, SEC: 17-23
Past 10 years, overall: 65-61
Past 10 years, SEC: 29-51

RELATED: Which Rebels made the cut in our list of the top 50 players in the SEC in 2016?
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(You can follow Brad Logan on Twitter @BradLoganCOTE)

© 2016, Brad Logan. All rights reserved.

© 2016, gridironnow.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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