America’s exhausting election dilemma is over — for the next four years, at least — but Ole Miss still has a puzzling football quandary to sort out by week’s end.
Senior quarterback Chad Kelly’s college career is over, cut short by a torn ACL and meniscus suffered against Georgia Southern on Saturday. His injury marks just the latest and most painful blow for a Rebels team (4-5, 1-4 SEC) sitting well short of its season expectations.
The loss of Kelly also leaves Hugh Freeze with a difficult decision entering Week 11. Does he play Jason Pellerin, the team’s primary backup in 2016, or does he pull 5-star freshman Shea Patterson’s redshirt with just three games left in the regular season?
As of Wednesday, the coach hasn’t made a decision.
“We are fixing to go to another meeting and look at how practice went yesterday and just see how we think what kind of game plan could be effective and how that looks,” Freeze said. “We have confidence in Jason (Pellerin). I thought he played really well last week. You just want to do the right thing for your team, and it’s still probably Thursday to Friday until we make that decision.”
The argument for Pellerin is obvious: Patterson retains another full season of eligibility by staying sidelined.
But the case for playing Patterson now is much more compelling, and much more interesting. Let’s dive into why this is the right move for Ole Miss:
The new kid phenomenon
This has been the year of the freshman quarterback. Across the country, you see Florida State’s Deondre Francois, USC’s Sam Darnold and Texas’ Shane Buechele enjoying tons of first-year success; the three have combined for 51 touchdowns and 14 picks in 27 games. Francois and Darnold redshirted, yes, but Patterson’s got 10 months on campus himself.
Heck, three true freshman have been bright spots in the SEC alone. Jalen Hurts surprised everyone by earning the Alabama job, and he’s played a big role in getting the Tide to 9-0. South Carolina fans love what they’ve seen out of Jake Bentley in his first three starts: 73 percent completion, 622 yards and 6 touchdowns. And all things considered, Jacob Eason is having a pretty nice season at Georgia, too. That Bulldogs offense has problems, but he’s not a culprit.
Point being: The players who have “it” can play, plain and simple.
Patterson isn’t some run-of-the-mill freshman, either. He signed with Ole Miss as the No. 1 pro-style passer in the Class of 2016 (247Sports Composite). As a senior, he honed his skills at IMG Academy, where he played against some of the best high schools in the country.
Patterson probably would’ve started Week 1 if there weren’t a senior star ahead of him. You have to think he’s ready enough.
Bowl game blues
Rebels fans reveled in the highs of a Sugar Bowl win last winter. This year, they’d be happy with the Liberty Bowl.
Between stars leaving for the NFL and an unforgiving schedule, 2016 was never going to be easy for Ole Miss. But missing out on a bowl game entirely — and the valuable extra practice that accompanies one — would be pretty deflating for a young-ish team like this one.
The Rebels need two more wins to hit 6-6, and those are in no way guaranteed. They play at Texas A&M, at Vanderbilt and then host Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl. A 4-8 finish isn’t out of the question.
If Freeze wants to make a bowl, he’ll start the quarterback who gives the team its best chance to win right now. Obviously, I’m not watching this week’s practice in Oxford. Going off raw talent, which is tough to project, Patterson is undoubtedly the higher-potential guy.
Here’s what Freeze had to say about Pellerin, who has taken most first-team reps in practice:
“There’s definitely things that he has a very good understanding of and feels comfortable with. And then there’s other things you can tell he’s not as comfortable with.
“The decision we have to get him to make is do we continue try and help him. It’s essential to our chances of winning the football game to continue to try to use reps to try and try and get him comfortable in those things he’s not or go with what he is comfortable.”
Regardless of who starts, it’ll be a dumbed-down playbook and game plan. But if the coaching staff feels there are certain areas where the offense is limited under Pellerin, you have to think Patterson is the better play.
Expediting the new era
So we’ve established that Patterson is in all likelihood good enough to start this game (he wouldn’t be an option if the coaches thought he wasn’t), and that he probably gives Ole Miss its best shot at winning an important game.
The biggest issue still lingers: What about that lost year of eligibility?
Well, if Patterson’s really, really good — and he may be — he’s not guaranteed to stick around for four seasons. More underclassmen are declaring early now than ever before.
But there’s a more important factor to consider. Between the 4-5 record, the star quarterback going down and the threat of NCAA punishment still looming over this program, the Rebels are in desperate need of some positive juice right now. They need something to build off heading into next season, especially if they don’t make a bowl game.
If Patterson plays well, it’s the perfect to reminder everyone in Oxford that the future of the program is still bright. And if he doesn’t play well, the freshman is still gaining valuable experience now, in what is basically a “lost season.”
It’d be better than learning on the fly next year, when fans hope Ole Miss is back to competing in the SEC West.
The future is now, but only Freeze can decide if he wants to delay it.