Bowl season is finally upon us. For some, it’s all about finishing the season on a strong note, and for others, it’s about getting ready for what’s ahead in 2016.
For No. 12 Ole Miss, there’s a few things the Rebels can prove to themselves and the college football world when the Rebels take on No. 16 Oklahoma State in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1.
Ole Miss belongs on the big stage
There’s no way to spin last year’s beatdown by TCU in the Peach Bowl if you’re a Rebels fan. Ole Miss got whopped and had many wondering if the Rebels belonged.
At times in 2015, they proved they did, but with Ole Miss back in a “New Year’s Six” bowl game, it needs to have a good showing and prove to everyone that college football’s big stages are not too big for the Rebels.
Ole Miss will be OK without the super juniors in 2016
Everyone wants to win the Sugar Bowl, but the fact of the matter is that coaches also use bowl practices to get a jumpstart on what they’ll have to work with next season.
For Ole Miss, that means no defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche and likely no offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil and wide receiver Laquon Treadwell. Those players have certainly lived up to the hype during their three years in Oxford, Miss., but just because those players are moving on to the next level doesn’t mean the Rebels will have a significant dropoff in 2016.
With Nkemdiche suspended for the Sugar Bowl, redshirt freshman Breeland Speaks will step in and show the world what he can do. In limited action this season, Speaks has wrecked havoc in opponent’s backfields, as he totaled 30 tackles, five tackles for loss, one sack, three quarterback hurries and two pass breakups.
At wide receiver, sophomore Damore’ea Stringfellow is expected to fill in for Treadwell, and he’s shown that explosive ability in the last few weeks of the regular season. In Stringfellow’s first season at Ole Miss, he totaled 503 receiving yards on 36 catches and had five touchdowns. Another strong showing by the 6-foot-2, 220-pounder in the Sugar Bowl would go a long way into silencing any doubters about the Rebels receiving core without Treadwell.
Along the offensive line, Tunsil will be impossible to replace and a huge point of emphasis heading into next season. Ole Miss returns a lot of depth on the interior of the offensive line, but tackle will be thin. The commitment from the nation’s top offensive tackle in 5-star prospect Greg Little last week will help things, but that will still be a worry in fall camp for Ole Miss.
Linebacker play will only get better
The biggest weakness on the defensive side for Ole Miss was undoubtedly the play at linebacker. The Rebels were replacing three huge contributors and relying on players who didn’t have much SEC experience.
However, things began improving towards to latter part of the scheduled, as sophomore DeMarquis Gates started making a bigger impact.
The 6-foot-2, 217-pounder has the look of an elite SEC linebacker and things began slowing down for him with more and more game experience. Gates totaled 71 tackles, two tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, four quarterback hurries and four pass breakups this season. Gates had 30 tackles over the Rebels’ final three games of the regular season.
With Gates blossoming into a star and a bevy of other players slowly getting acclimated in defensive coordinator Dave Wommack’s defense, linebacker play should turn from a weakness into a strength in 2016.