- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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With Ole Miss coming off an historic 2014 season, expectations are soaring in Oxford for the Rebels and head coach Hugh Freeze. Last year's nine-win season that featured a No. 3 ranking at one point was momentous for Ole Miss, but now the question is whether the Rebels can keep it up.
Is Ole Miss finally here to stay in the SEC or was 2014 just a flash-in-the-pan-type season? Freeze has been cleaning up in recruiting and appears to have the talent to make another deep run in the SEC West in 2015.
Here's a look back at the rest of this series from the SEC.
Why Ole Miss will win the SEC West:
Stacked defense ... again: Most of the nation's best scoring defense from last season returns. While Ole Miss does have to replace All-Americans Senquez Golson and Cody Prewitt">Senquez Golson and Cody Prewitt in its secondary, the Rebels will plug some studs into their place. Ole Miss should have lethal secondary combinations with with Tony Conner, Trae Elston, C.J. Hampton and Mike Hilton returning, along with the additions of juco corners Tee Shepard and Tony Bridges. Up front, Ole Miss has a potent attack headed by Robert Nkemdiche (a potential top-10 NFL draft pick) inside and Marquis Haynes and Fadol Brown outside. The Rebels have some questions at linebacker, but there's a lot of athleticism to work with and moving C.J. Johnson to middle linebacker will give the unit some great leadership to lean on.
The 2013 recruiting class: This is the backbone of this team. The former top-five recruiting class has certainly lived up to the hype, and this will likely be the last dance for the core of this class. Nkemdiche, Conner, offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, wide receiver Laquon Treadwell and tight end Evan Engram all have a chance to be the first players at their respective positions selected in next year's NFL draft. And if these guys are healthy and continue to at least play to their potential, the Rebels will definitely compete for the West title for all three months of the college football regular season.
QB Chad Kelly: I know he's yet to take a snap for the Rebels in a game, he has a troubled past and he hasn't fully grasped Ole Miss' offense, but Kelly is a heck of an athlete and is the most talented quarterback the Rebels have on their roster. While Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade know the offense better, they don't have the physical tools Kelly possesses. His accuracy, arm strength and ability with his feet should give him the edge once he gets the playbook and the offense down. He has a lot to prove, but if Ole Miss is really going to have a chance in the West this fall, Kelly has to be the guy under center and has to let his talent shine.
Why Ole Miss won't win the SEC West:
No true running game: Offensive line issues contributed to a horrid running game for the Rebels last season, but Ole Miss just doesn't own a very intimidating player at running back. Ole Miss averaged just 3.9 yards per carry in SEC play last season, and in the Rebels' four losses they managed just two rushing touchdowns and averaged 2.7 yards per carry, including rushing for nine yards on 37 attempts (0.24 yards per carry) in a blowout loss to TCU in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. Jaylen Walton led the team with 586 rushing yards and five touchdowns, averaging only 45.1 yards per game (fewest of any starting SEC running back), while bigger back Jordan Wilkins has to do much better than his 361 yards from 2014. Ole Miss lost two backs to transfer and might have to rely a lot on freshman Eric Swinney. The Rebels also have to be healthy along the offensive line. They weren't last season or this spring, and if that's the case in 2015, Ole Miss will have a lot of problems.
Brutal road trips: Yes, everyone in the West has it tough when it comes to scheduling, but Ole Miss has to go to Alabama, Florida, Auburn and Mississippi State this season. The scheduling gods were not good to the Rebels. The Alabama game will be a night game inside one of the nation's toughest venues, Florida is an enigma that might be playing with house money, Auburn is a national championship favorite and the Egg Bowl with Mississippi State will yet again be another large hurdle against a team that will be jockeying for position in the West as well. Ole Miss also has to squeeze in home games against Arkansas and LSU in between those trips to Auburn and Starkville.
4dAlex Scarborough and Greg Ostendorf
5dEdward Aschoff and Greg Ostendorf
10dGreg Ostendorf and Alex Scarborough