What do Texas, Florida, LSU, Alabama, Auburn, Florida State and Ohio State all have in common? Other than a shared hatred from the rest of the country, they've all claimed a national collegiate football championship in the last decade. So, looking broadly across those teams' rosters, playbooks and peculiar successes, is it possible to divine the most salient ingredients needed for winning at the highest level? And if so, how do the 2015 Ole Miss Rebels stack up against these perennial powerhouses?
Over at Grantland, Matt Hinton has made a longitudinal study of the last 10 NCAA champion football squads and identified five common characteristics they all share. Somewhat surprisingly, Hinton very loudly avers that a proven quarterback is not a core requirement for a team's championship hopes. Cam Newton, Greg McElroy, and Jameis Winston all hauled home the crystal hardware in their first year as starters. This non-requisite at QB, then, should allay at least some dubiousness on the part of Hugh Freeze and the Rebel faithful, who might have felt somewhat apprehensive about casting any one of three untried helmsman into the fray.
If a looming question mark at quarterback shouldn't give reason for concern, what elements are necessary for national-championship caliber teams?
1. Recruiting, recruiting, recruiting.
According to Hinton, each of the last 13 national champion teams have recruited the top 12 best classes over the period 2012-2015. Using 247Sports' calculus, between the years 2012-2015 Ole Miss has averaged in at 22nd for national crootin' rankings. This number of course reflects the outlier of the 2012 incoming class, when the Rebs' program was, shall we say, in a transitional period. Excepting the 2012 class then -- which was oh by the way ranked a dismal 46th -- Freeze has averaged a 2013-2015 recruiting rank of 14th in the country, with the 2013 class registering 9th overall.
And it's that 2013 class -- carried on the shoulders of Laremy Tunsil, Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell, and Tony Conner -- which has taken the leadership reigns for 2015 and stands poised to make good on seemingly historic expectations in Oxford this year.
2. An early-tenure coach.
Call it the "Urban Meyer Rule" or "Auburn Phenomenon" but the last 10 national-champion coaches have managed to win their titles in a hell of a hurry. Meyer brought championships to Gainesville in his second and third years on the job. Gene Chizik silenced haters on the Plains in his second year. Nick Saban, Les Miles and Pete Carroll hoisted their first trophies after three years in charge. To be sure, since 2000 Mack Brown is the lone exception that proves the rule of coaches winning their first title in under five years of work. Hugh Freeze, whom Hinton names as a to-watch coach for 2015, enters his fourth season as Rebel boss man with a full three years' worth of Freeze-recruited guys.
It would be unjustly hyperbolic to say that 2015 is the now-or-never season for Coach Freeze, but his upward arc entering year four may well land the Rebels in some elite waters come January.
3. A wrecking-ball defensive line.
With the exception of Florida's 2008 team, every national champion defensive line since 2005 has included at least one All-American tackler. Like Ohio State this year, Ole Miss has the very good problem of a handful of players projected to be first-round picks for next year's NFL Draft, and wouldn't you know it but Robert Nkemdiche is currently sitting 11th on CBSSports' draft board. This very sports blog has sung the defensive line's praises, and with good reason. The upfront Rebel rush is big, violent, and experienced. And with Nkemdiche running anchor while occupying double- and at times triple-team blockages, opponents' backfields sit hopelessly liable to invasion in 2015.
4. A stingy secondary.
In not so many words, Hinton's analysis lends ever more weight to the "defense wins championships" koan, which of course will undoubtedly be Nick Saban's dying words. Still, one can observe a trend among most of the last 10 title-winners that bends toward passing defense outweighing run defense. The 2013 Seminoles, for instance, ranked second in passing defense efficiency that year, whereas their run defense ranked a modest 18th. The Rebels have lost the services of Senquez Golson and Cody Prewitt, sure, but they have a pair of JUCO transfers that look promising at cornerback and a host of experience at the various safety positions.
On paper the secondary appears set to do some amazing things this year, but laid against Hinton's framework for CFB Playoff credentials, the Rebs' pass defense holds the largest question marks. How will Mike Hilton adapt to the rover spot? Are Tee Shepard and Tony Bridges game-ready enough to bring the pain? The next four weeks will assuredly answer these questions.
5. The ability to score anytime.
The awful wonder of a well-coached Urban Meyer team is his defense's and special teams' threats to score every minute they're on the field. Beyond stealing a possession from one's opponent, defensive and special teams touchdowns tap that ever-fickle vein of momentum, whereby a sudden pick-six can ignite a jubilant frenzy of compounding points. The Rebels begin 2015 well situated for just such a metric, insofar as they led the country in points-against with 16.0 points allowed per game last season. Turning that stifling defense into about-facing touchdowns must indeed become a priority for Dave Wommack's shop, whose secondary took only three of 22 interceptions back to the house in 2014.
Ole Miss is currently at 50/1 odds to win the national title game on January 11, 2016, and it'll be interesting to see how much crow Matt Hinton (and Jim Lohmar) eat when this year's CFB champion is crowned.