While most fans are getting their football fix by salivating over NFL preseason games, the last few weeks of waiting until college football returns is always extremely painful for me.
I like the NFL, but it does not capture me the way college football does. The spirit and pageantry of college football give me something the NFL can’t. However, those feel-good vibes have gone away over the past few years, and this offseason has done nothing to help the cause.
That pattern continued Thursday when Ole Miss’ NCAA investigation took another twist. Yahoo’s Pat Forde reported that the NCAA has interviewed football players at Auburn, Mississippi State and potentially one other SEC West school about the Rebels’ recruiting tactics.
That in itself sounds a bit odd, but here’s the real kicker. Forde reported the NCAA gave each player it questioned immunity from potential NCAA sanctions if they gave a “truthful account of their recruitment.”
A player can theoretically admit to either receiving money or an offer for money regarding his recruitment with Ole Miss, but no questions will be asked about why they chose the school they did? That is one slippery slope I can’t imagine any college coach, athletics director or president is excited to see pursued.
This unexpected, and seemingly outrageous, turn leads to many questions that frankly need to be answered.
First and foremost, who at Ole Miss ticked off the NCAA?
The Rebels have been the subject of an investigation for more than three years, and that almost assuredly will creep well into year four before this process ends. But why is it taking so long?
By many accounts, the investigation was all but wrapped up last summer before former Ole Miss left tackle Laremy Tunsil got into an altercation with his stepfather, Lindsey Miller. That event in itself opened up Pandora’s box for the Rebels.
Miller handed anything and everything he had to NCAA investigators and prolonged this process. Without that, the Rebels likely have their sanctions in hand, and those would’ve been nothing more than a slap on the wrist.
Most of Miller’s accusations didn’t make the Notice of Allegations Ole Miss received in January, but it was enough to put the investigation into the national spotlight and cause Tunsil to miss seven games last season.
Even then, things looked to be over for Ole Miss’ investigation before Tunsil’s NFL draft night saga, which included screenshots of Tunsil asking a coach at Ole Miss for money and an admission that Tunsil took money from a coach during his time in Oxford. That opened things back up, but no one imagined it would take that long to look into a few text messages.
That leads to the second question. How did the investigation go from Tunsil’s text messages (that you would think would’ve been looked at numerous times prior to the events of draft night) to asking rival schools’ players about their recruitments?
For that matter, why is the perception surrounding the case always been centered on pay-for-play allegations?
If you’ve read Ole Miss’ Notice of Allegations, there is no pay-for-play violations. In fact, there’s very little in the notice that has to do with any extreme recruiting violations that have occurred under Hugh Freeze.
The worst of it all came from the Houston Nutt era and deals with academic fraud, which Ole Miss should be punished harshly for. Under Freeze, the worst comes from Tunsil getting loaner cars and receiving a $3,000 loan, his stepfather receiving $800 and what amounted to nearly two full weeks of free lodging, and a few rides given by a “booster” to two players (a three-star prospect and a walk-on). Certainly, those shouldn’t go without punishment, but let’s not act like those fit the allegations being thrown around by rival fans.
So if we want to talk about Ole Miss’ NCAA investigation and what the NCAA has proved up to this point, that’s fine, but can we please refrain from throwing out the pay-for-play allegations that have no merit, at least as of now?
While we’re on that topic, let’s address that real fast.
All of the allegations began following the Rebels’ 2013 recruiting class, but if you look at things objectively, it’s not hard to see how Hugh Freeze and company reeled in the big names.
Robert Nkemdiche was always going where his brother, Denzel, was. Credit Nutt for signing Denzel as a late signee before his days in Oxford came to an end. Laquon Treadwell’s best friend, Anthony Standifer, was already on the roster at Ole Miss. We’ve all seen friends follow other friends to school, right? Tony Connor lives down the road from Oxford and went to a high school that’s an Ole Miss pipeline. The only real surprise was Tunsil.
Flash forward to 2016, and the Rebels put together another big class, ranked No. 6 in the nation, according to 247Sports’ composite rankings. If you dig deeper into the class, nine of the 15 four- or five-star prospects were from Mississippi or Texas, which has become a major focal point for Ole Miss’ recruiting efforts since Texas A&M joined the SEC.
If you average the Rebels’ final recruiting ranking from Freeze’s five classes in Oxford, Ole Miss’ average class was ranked 18.6 nationally, according to 247Sports’ composite. In the five years prior to Freeze’s arrival, the Rebels averaged the 22nd best class nationally. Granted, Freeze’s first class was ranked 47th, so things have undoubtedly been on the up-and-up for the Rebels on the recruiting trail. But let’s not pretend that Ole Miss went from putting together classes that landed outside the top 25 on a yearly basis to competing with the big boys. So the perception that recruiting took off when Freeze got to town is a little far-fetched.
With all that being said, the last question that needs answering is, what are the SEC and Ole Miss doing?
Having your member schools throw stones at each other can’t be what SEC commissioner Greg Sankey wants, and the Rebels sitting by letting themselves get crucified in the court of public opinion can’t be what athletics director Ross Bjork has in mind.
If the SEC is really trying to help Ole Miss, it has to flex its muscles soon, and if it’s not, what does that say about what the powers that be in Birmingham really think about the Rebels?
If the NCAA has proof that Ole Miss cheated big time, let’s get on with the process. If the NCAA can’t find anything after turning over every leaf around Oxford, let it go. Just come to some sort of resolution.
This whole situation is one giant mess, and resolution doesn’t look like it’s coming soon. So football season, please hurry. Come distract us from the nonsense that is the NCAA.