The upcoming, 2015 college football season is the last in which Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze will have all members of his outstanding, 2013 recruiting class in the fold.
Ole Miss must make its hay in the SEC before the NFL comes calling for Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell and Laromy Tunsil. However, before the Rebels can harbor realistic expectations of winning the SEC West, the Rebels need a clear answer to their biggest question: Who, exactly, is going to quarterback the offense?
Bo Wallace started the last of 39 career games on New Year’s Eve 2014, in a Peach Bowl Ole Miss faithful would prefer forget: a 42-3 beat-down against TCU. Wallace finished that day 10-of-23 passing for 109 yards with three interceptions.
The Peach Bowl was a stark reminder that poor quarterback can have a profound impact on a game. In 2015, quarterback play could be the difference in Ole Miss maximizing on its potential, and the Rebels falling back into a familiar position as SEC West also-rans.
Three quarterbacks are vying for that responsibility in this offseason: DeVante Kincade, Chad Kelly and Ryan Buchanan.
There’s no questioning the talent surrounding the Rebels’ next quarterback. Just in the passing attack, Ole Miss returns the aforementioned Treadwell, arguably the nation’s most talented receiver. Joining him is Damore’ea Stringfellow, the highly touted prospect whose promising career at Washington was cut short by an arrest in Feb. 2014.
Ole Miss is through its spring practice season, and Freeze appears no closer to announcing a starter than he was at the outset of the 15-workout slate.
Kelly, a transfer from Clemson, made some noteworthy passes in the Rebels’ spring game Saturday — passes reminiscent of uncle and former Miami Hurricanes/Buffalo Bills great, Jim Kelly.
But Chad Kelly is also a big question mark. He was booted from Clemson’s roster last spring for the ambiguous “conduct detrimental to the team,” then was arrested in December.
Kincade has a sky-high ceiling and could be a difference-maker in Freeze’s version of the spread offense, similar to former Freeze pupil Ryan Aplin at Arkansas State. Aplin passed over 3,300 yards and rushed for almost 600 in 2011, and Kincade boasted similar production at Texas prep powerhouse Dallas Skyline.
Buchanan earned praise from Freeze in the Grove Bowl’s post-game presser, though coaching platitudes uttered this time of year can often be taken with less than a full grain of salt.
The good news for Ole Miss is that there’s plenty of potential for any of the three to be marked upgrades from Wallace. Though Wallace was experienced — the only starter Ole Miss has known under Hugh Freeze, in fact — the most predictable thing it got from the quarterback was unpredictability.
Bo Wallace was the South’s Jekyll and Hyde — one man torn between two polar opposite identities. Wallace was so erratic that national media types and game broadcasters took to referencing “Good Bo” — the Bo Wallace who passed for three touchdowns in an upset of Alabama — and “Bad Bo.” The program’s last impression is that of Bad Bo.
So long as Ole Miss’ new quarterback is at least stable, the Rebels should match their 9-win mark of 2014. Should they get production exceeding that of Wallace, there’s little doubt that Ole Miss is a very real SEC West contender — which, ostensibly, makes it a College Football Playoff contender.
Freeze’s decision isn’t as simple as plug one of Kelly, Kincade or Buchanan in behind center and let ‘im loose. The margin for error in the SEC West is almost nonexistent, with the difference between No. 1 and No. 7 being negligible at best. To wit, the Rebels lost to last-place Arkansas in November — the same Arkansas that took conference champion Alabama to the brink, which lost at Ole Miss.
Of note: Wallace went 16-of-31 with two interceptions and no scores in the Arkansas loss.
Indeed, there’s no overstating just how critical quarterback play will be to the Rebels’ 2015 outlook. Hugh Freeze is facing the most pressing decision of his Ole Miss tenure; it’s understandable that he’s biding his time.