To understand just how good Hugh Freeze’s first year at Ole Miss was, you first need to understand how the program was that he inherited.
No, Ole Miss wasn’t a good program which needed the right coach to take them to the next level, like Urban Meyer at Ohio State. Nor were they a good team which needed a coach to instill some mental toughness like Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M. They weren’t even a decent program which simply required a new leader to help them scratch the surface of their potential. Think Todd Graham at Arizona State.
Nope, at Ole Miss whoever took over for Houston Nutt had to blow things up, and start over from scratch. That is exactly what Freeze did in his first year on campus.
That’s also what makes what Freeze did in year one in Oxford that much more incredible: He literally inherited nothing when he arrived- not a winning infrastructure, talented players, or heck, even a manageable schedule- yet he somehow turned the Rebels into a seven-win ball-club.
Apparently, there’s a reason they call him “Hugh Freezeus.”
So what went right in Freeze’s first year on campus? More importantly what needs to be improved to take the Rebs to the next level?
Let’s take a look.
What Went Right: Well, when you’re coming off a 2-10 season, simply “winning football games” is a good step in the right direction. Well, Ole Miss did that with a five-win overall improvement, highlighted by the end of a 16-game SEC losing streak (against Auburn in October), the end of a three year Egg Bowl drought (the longest since the 1940’s) and the first bowl appearance for the program since the 2009 season. All in all, not a bad opening act for Freeze.
What was maybe more impressive though was the “cultural” change around the Ole Miss program.
Now before we go any further, I already know what you’re thinking: We hear coaches promise to “change the culture” all the time across college football. Only with Freeze, that’s exactly what he did in his first year on campus.
More than just beating Auburn, Arkansas and Mississippi State, what may have been even more impressive is that other than Texas and Georgia, Ole Miss never once got blown off the field, like they had so many times under Nutt. The Rebels played Alabama tougher than any team in the first two months of the season, lost to LSU by less than a touchdown, and were some Johnny Manziel heroics away from pulling off an upset of A&M too. Add in a one-point loss to Vanderbilt and this team was closer to being a nine-win football club than a five-win one.
Understand those feats listed above are impressive for any first-year coach. But to get it from a team which both figuratively and literally quit on the previous coaching staff it is that much more impressive.
What Went Wrong: No matter how you spin Freeze’s first year on campus there were still six losses, and until that number is improved upon, it’s going to be hard for anyone outside of Oxford to take the Rebels as a serious football threat. Now that’s not necessarily my personal opinion (I think HUGE things are ahead for this program). But it is still the mindset of most college football fans.
At the same time, let’s also make no bones about it: Even if the Rebels didn’t win 10 games, the numbers they put up in 2012 were exceptionally better, in just about every phase of the game than they were in 2011. The Rebels’ 45th ranked offense or 46th ranked defense might not match up with the SEC’s best, but when you match it up with the 114th ranked offense or 90th ranked defense that Ole Miss trotted out in 2011, it gives it a completely different context.
With Ole Miss it was never about achieving perfection in 2012, but instead varying degrees of “better.” And there’s no doubt that the Rebels are better now than at any point they’ve been in the last few seasons.
Where Do Things Go From Here: Seemingly, only up.
By now you know that the Rebels put together a recruiting class for the ages in 2013, giving the club a much needed infusion of talent along the offensive line (Laremy Tunsil) and at wide receiver (Laquon Treadwell). Not to mention they also inked some kid named Robert Nkemdiche, who just so happened to be the top high school player in the country.
Meaning that for now, the next step with Hugh Freeze and this program really is to just get better each day.
They took the first big step in 2012 by beating the teams they were supposed to (think Auburn and Arkansas) and are still probably a year or two from competing with Alabama and LSU. In the meantime a good intermediary would be to beat a second-tier SEC club or two (like Vanderbilt for example), get back to a bowl game and win eight or nine games.
Again, it’s not about perfection, but “better.” And Ole Miss seems to keep better each and every day.
What’s scary for the rest of the college football world is that it doesn’t appear like they’ll be slowing down any time soon.
Hugh Freeze’s First-Year Coaching Grade: A-
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Also, be sure to check out all of our previous coaching evaluation pieces: