Hugh Freeze’s steady rebuild reached a pinnacle in 2015 when Ole Miss won 10 games for the first time since 2003 and the third time since 1971.
Behind an incredibly talented group of stars, the Rebels finished 10-3 and capped an excellent campaign with an emphatic 48-20 Sugar Bowl victory over Oklahoma State. They were also the only team to knock off national champions, Alabama, last season.
Ole Miss will be without three of the program’s cornerstones from its revitalization. Offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, wide receiver Laquon Treadwell and defensive end Robert Nkemdiche all were first-round picks in the 2016 NFL Draft.
The Rebels didn’t lose everything, however. The best news of the offseason came when quarterback Chad Kelly announced he would return for his senior season. Kelly will enter the season as arguably the best quarterback in the SEC and is expected to carry Ole Miss to its second consecutive 10-win season.
Will Kelly’s return overcome the losses of his top blocker and weapon from last season? Here are the best and worst-case scenarios for Ole Miss in 2016:
Best-case scenario: New stars emerge on both sides of the ball, Kelly wins SEC Offensive Player of the Year and the Rebels contend for the SEC West.
It’s fairly safe to say Ole Miss’ 2016 season will hinge on Kelly’s arm. Kelly threw for 4,042 yards, 31 touchdowns and 13 interceptions during his breakout season. He was voted Second Team All-SEC by the coaches and should be in the running for a first team selection this upcoming season.
Kelly should be poised for a big senior season, but he will need playmakers to emerge around him. The Rebels will be without their top two receivers, Treadwell and Cody Core, and their leading rusher, Jaylen Walton.
The receiving tandem of Quincy Adeboyejo and Damore’ea Stringfellow combined for 74 receptions last season. They are both vastly talented and have enough experience to step in as regular starters and produce right away. Senior Akeem Judd and junior Jordan Wilkins should be players to watch in the backfield.
Ole Miss also returns its leading tackler and sack artist to the “Landshark” defense. Junior defensive end Marquis Haynes could be a star in the making after recording 10 sacks last season, and junior linebacker DeMarquis Gates was a force with 76 tackles.
This season will test how well Freeze has assembled and developed talent aside from his high-profile signings. The Rebels will need some underrated players step up and fill in next season. A terrific season from Kelly would keep Ole Miss in the conversation for the SEC West, as it plays Alabama, Georgia, Auburn and Mississippi State all at home.
Worst-case scenario: Ole Miss struggles to replace its stars and loses five games for the first time since 2013.
The quarterback is the most important position on the field, but the loss of Treadwell could greatly affect Kelly next season. The Rebels also don’t have proven replacements in the backfield and must replace a stud at left tackle.
The secondary could be a weak spot after the Rebels ranked 13th in the SEC in passing defense last season (258.8 yards allowed per game). Ole Miss lost three defensive backs who recorded an interception last season, including one of its top playmakers, Trae Elston.
Ole Miss’ schedule is quite daunting and a replenished roster will be thrown into the fire right away. Ole Miss opens the season with a neutral-site game against Florida State in Orlando (which is practically a road game) and hosts vengeful Alabama and UGA in September.
Things don’t get much easier after that. Ole Miss travels to Arkansas and LSU in consecutive weeks following its Oct. 8 bye, and also plays back-to-back road games against Texas A&M and Vanderbilt in November.
A revamped roster combined with a perilous early schedule could spell doom for Ole Miss. The Rebels won’t have much time to get acclimated and a five-loss campaign is quite possible. Kelly might be the best quarterback in the SEC, but it might not be enough.