Last Saturday night Hugh Freeze led Ole Miss to a 41-24 drubbing of arch-rival Mississippi State, completing the final step in attaining a feat that I, and many others, deemed impossible prior to the season: becoming bowl eligible in his first year.
I was very vocal about my disapproval when Freeze was announced as the Rebels' next head coach twelve months ago. On this very corner of the internet I exclaimed that the hire was "#&$@-ing unacceptable." I thought the signing of the inexperienced Freeze reeked of good ole' boy nepotism, and that the decision was based more on his connections than his qualifications. A significant portion of the Ole Miss community expressed concern with the native Mississippian's slim resume, which at the time consisted of little more than a one year stint at Arkansas State and a depiction in the "Blind Side."
On the day of the hire, I typed:
Freeze is a HUGE gamble. He might end up being great. He might end up being awful. The problem is that in the shape our program is currently in, we can’t afford to lose that gamble. In my opinion we simply can’t take a risk on a guy who’s had only one year of college coaching experience.
Well, it seems the gamble has paid off. Defying all football logic, Freeze has guided the Rebels through a grueling schedule and has emerged on the other side with a surprising six wins. Only the most faithful of optimists predicted anything more than four or five this season. Even in defeat the Rebels have shown enormous progress since Houston Nutt's miserable 2011 campaign. Losses by 23, 45 and 49 points to Vanderbilt, Alabama and LSU, respectively, were replaced by deficits of 1, 19 and 6. 'Almosts' are useless in football, but if you were to change a handful of plays, this team could very well be 9-3.
Competing with a roster decimated by the mismanagement of the Nutt regime, Freeze has turned the program 180 degrees in just under a year on the job. An excitement has returned to Ole Miss football that has been woefully absent during the previous two years. Fans are reinvigorated. Players are passionate. Top prospects are interested.
Some caution is in order, however. Let's bed down the talk of ten win seasons and trips to Atlanta. Don't forget, we were all equally, if not more, excited after the conclusion of Nutt's first season. It will be at least two or three years before a true assesment can be made about this hire. Despite all his successes, there have been a few discrepancies in Freeze's coaching this year, namely play calling issues and trouble holding late leads. Freeze's record may also be a bit inflated, as he reaped the benefits of facing two of the worst Auburn and Arkansas squads in the schools' respective histories. I'm certainly not predicting a Count Giggity-esque collapse, but let's attempt to stay grounded and patient.
That said, the future of Rebel football looks luminously bright under Freeze, an outlook few of us held some three months ago.
I was wrong, folks. And I've never been happier to admit it.