At #8 in our five-part series are the Ole Miss Rebels. Hugh Freeze took Ole Miss from 2-10 to 7-6 in his first season, with a consensus top-five national recruiting class coming in. Many believe even better things are to come in 2013.
The Rebels are led on offense by QB Bo Wallace. Wallace passed for just short of 3,000 yards in 2012, and grew more and more confidence as the season went on. He will throw it a lot to Donte Moncrief; Moncrief caught for 979 yards and ten touchdowns, and was a standout at the end of the season. The 5’7” dynamo Jeff Scott returns at RB, also a threat catching passes. Where Ole Miss needs to improve the most is on defense. The 4-2-5 alignment is built around emerging DT Woodrow Hamilton and OLB Denzel Nkemdiche.
Will Ole Miss get beaten down? In addition to the opener at Vanderbilt, Mississippi plays on the road at Texas, Alabama, and Auburn back-to-back-to-back—then has Texas A&M and LSU at home. The schedule is soft after that, but where will they be after that first seven?
Moving to the upper-half of the conference, maybe for more than just this season, are the Vanderbilt Commodores at #7. Some in the know truly think they can contend for the SEC East this year, I am a bit more cautious than that. But for the first time in memory you look at the schedule and do not see a single game on it they have no chance to win.
The biggest question is at quarterback where it appears that Austyn Carta-Samuels will get the first crack at replacing Jordan Rodgers. But around him is the kind of quality Vandy has never possessed, a deep trio of running backs, an offensive line anchored by possibly the best lineman in the SEC in Wesley Johnson, a receiving corps capable of being the league’s best, as well as the best kicker in the conference in Carey Spear.
Defensively, where the Commodores were 15th nationally in 2012, they have one of the finest defensive backfields in the league and an all-American candidate in Chase Garnham at middle linebacker. They must replace three on the D-line, but they have experience back to help.
If Vandy had done it before, it would be easier to say they could contend in the East. A scandal has brought them closer together and they seem grounded (and ready) for all that awaits them. A more detailed Commodore preview is coming soon.
At #6 is a team ranked highly because they have been so many times before, the Florida Gators. The 2012 season ended very badly with a decisive loss to Louisville in the Sugar Bowl, still they were 11-2. Florida had the worst passing offense in the league and their leading returning rusher is their quarterback, the same Jeff Driskel who has missed most of the preseason after an appendectomy.
Adding to the problems is the loss of top kick returner and important weapon Andre Debose to an ACL injury in August. Florida has only three returning on defense and you really are banking on Coach Will Muschamp’s scheme. Also that, as always, the Gators can reload more and rebuild less.
Florida was +15 in turnovers in 2012, scrappy and opportunistic at every turn. The skill talent does not look nearly as skilled as in the past. Reputation says the Gators can contend in the East. The impression is they may end closer to the 7-6 of 2011 than the Sugar Bowl of 2012.