HOOVER, Ala. — From top to bottom, there may not be a more cutthroat division in college football than the SEC West.
Six of its seven teams fall within the top 25 of ESPN’s Football Power Index rating. All seven finished last season above the .500 mark. There’s LSU, a popular pick to make the College Football Playoff, and of course the Nick Saban-run steamroller over at Alabama.
Nestled in the pack is Hugh Freeze, whose program was picked to finish third in the West on Thursday. There is still the menacing cloud of an NCAA investigation hanging over Freeze’s team. Understandably, that has obscured Ole Miss’ steady improvement in each of his four years as coach.
Last year, the Rebels achieved just their third 10-win season since 1962, and capped off their first Sugar Bowl victory since 1969. The benchmark for success this season: “15-0, SEC Championship, national championship,” according to Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly.
But Freeze knows there’s a wide gap to bridge between thinking that’s possible and actually accomplishing that. That much was made clear by his response to the following question:
Which is tougher, winning an SEC title or a national championship?
“I would probably say the West,” Freeze said at SEC Media Days. “I don’t know that our fan bases have quite the appreciation for just how difficult it is to win a game in the Southeastern Conference, in our division. Particularly when expectations rise. Everybody has good players, everybody has good coaches, everybody recruits well, everybody has good facilities. Then you get in the game and the opponent had the right game plan for you and all of a sudden you turn the ball over, and you’re not going to win those games all the time. It is so difficult to win football games.
“Then you become an awful coach that week, and then next week it goes your way and you’re a good coach again.”
Chances are, the other six West coaches share Freeze’s sentiment. LSU coach Les Miles in particular felt the reality of the division’s high-bar last November, when reports of his job status began circulating amid a deflating three-game losing streak.
“Hated it for him. I love Les. My daughters like Les. He’s always kind to them,” Freeze said. “You’re kind to my daughters, I have a fondness for you. He’s been very, very welcoming to me in this league. I know how hard it is to win consistently in this league. To see people like (former UGA coach) Mark Richt and Les Miles that have been really consistent throughout the course of their career – we live in a society that wants results right now, they want punishment handed down right now.”
Miles, also in attendance for the final session of Media Days, downplayed all of it. His love for LSU and confidence in the athletic department’s leadership were common refrains in his answers.
“I never felt anything but passion for my team. I felt like I communicated very effectively with the athletic director and felt very comfortable in the position I was in,” Miles said.
His players shared a similar message.
“He was cool the whole time,” star tailback Leonard Fournette told reporters. “He always told us to just to play for ourselves but at the end of the day that is our head coach and without his signature on those letters we wouldn’t be here so we play for him at the end of the day.”
With SEC coaching salaries at an all-time high, though, coaches around the conference concede that the sport’s money-making machine leaves them with little room for error — especially if fans grow impatient.
“We’re kind of a product of the creature we’ve created,” Freeze said. “It will happen to all of us before it’s said and done. You really have respect for the guys in this business. We know how hard it is to win. I reached out to (Miles) during that time to tell him, ‘Hang in there.’ I’m very glad that it worked out for him.”
A final question was lobbed his way:
Did the two of you communicate by text, Hugh?
“Phone call. Les doesn’t text very well,” Freeze said with a smile.