The regular season has come and gone, and Ole Miss — barring an upset in the 2015 SEC Championship Game — is Sugar Bowl bound.
It wasn’t the ultimate goal this team was striving for, but when you take into account the adversity it had overcome, it’s a pretty impressive feat.
This season was supposed to be the culminating year for the big 2013 recruiting class highlighted by defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, left tackle Laremy Tunsil, wide receiver Laquon Treadwell and safety Tony Conner. Those four players played just two games together this season, however, forcing the Rebels to adjust.
Nkemdiche and Tunsil played well enough to battle for a potential No. 1 overall selection in the 2016 NFL Draft, and Treadwell came back from last season’s broken ankle to be in contention for a top-10 pick.
Despite all that success, however, this season will ultimately be remembered for Arkansas’ fourth-and-25 conversion in overtime. If the Rebels had stopped that play, they would be fighting for an SEC title on Saturday.
Team MVP: QB Chad Kelly
Ole Miss entered 2015 with an unknown at quarterback, but the play of junior Chad Kelly quickly silenced those concerns.
Kelly won the quarterback competition in fall camp and catapulted himself into a record-breaking first season with the Rebels. The Buffalo, N.Y., native led the SEC in passing yards (3,740) and passing yards per game (311.7) and finished second in passing touchdowns (27), yards per attempt (8.8) and passer rating (154.41). Kelly also added 427 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground.
Defensive MVP: DB Trae Elston
A lot can be said about the impact Nkemdiche has on every play, but the heart and soul of the Rebels defense were senior defensive backs Trae Elston and Mike Hilton.
Elston gets the edge from a production standpoint. The Oxford, Ala., native was second on the team with 66 tackles, fourth in the SEC with four interceptions, first in the SEC with two defensive touchdowns and second in the SEC with 16 passes defended. He also totaled 4.5 tackles for loss.
Best Freshman: OG Jordan Sims
For the first time in a while, Ole Miss did not need to rely heavily on freshmen. However, redshirt freshman offensive guard Jordan Sims played a pivotal role down the stretch. Sims saw his role increase each week and became a staple on the interior of Ole Miss’ offensive line by season’s end.
Biggest Surprise: LB DeMarquis Gates
Ole Miss had plenty of question marks at linebacker, but by the end of the season it found a consistent playmaker in sophomore DeMarquis Gates.
The 6-foot-2, 217-pounder led the Rebels in tackles (71) and also totaled two tackles for loss, four quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles and four pass breakups. He’ll be a big part of the middle of the Ole Miss defense next season.
Best Play: “Tip-Six” against Alabama
It wasn’t the play that won the game for Ole Miss, but it was a highlight Rebels fans will remember forever.
Kelly batted a high snap upward, plucked it out of the air and frantically threw it in the direction of Treadwell as he was pounded into the ground. Treadwell almost reeled it in before it was tipped out of his hands and off the helmet of an Alabama defensive back. Then, the ball floated in the air and hit Ole Miss wide receiver Quincy Adeboyejo in stride for the 66-yard touchdown.
Overall Grade: B
It was a successful season. Anyone who says different is crazy. However, this team had championship potential, and the Rebels were literally one play away from playing for one in Atlanta on Saturday.
Nevertheless, it was still a good year, and Ole Miss is on the verge of making its first Sugar Bowl appearance since after the 1969 season. With another big-time recruiting class coming in next year and Kelly likely to return for his senior season, the Rebels should again be in the thick of things.
There will likely be some head-scratching games along with plenty of surprise moments in 2016. It’s life in the SEC West. But right now, Ole Miss is among the best in the toughest division in the country, and that’s saying something.