The offseason begins today, which means that it's only proper that we look in the rear view mirror to celebrate the year of Ole Miss football that was. In 2015-16 Ole Miss had its most successful football season since 2003 (and, arguably, since well before then), winning ten games and ending a Sugar Bowl drought 40+ years in the making. As is to be expected in the course of such a season, this team and its fans experienced several signature moments that we are sure to look back on fondly. Below is our effort to capture the ten best such moments, both in terms of football feat and gravitas.
In putting this list together, we discussed a lot of plays, something which is bound to happen on the heels of a 10-3 season. Limiting ourselves to celebrating just ten means there are undeniably many individual football moments worthy of mention that are not captured here, so please do so in the comments thread.
So, let's celebrate the season that was! But, first, some honorable mentions for the top Ole Miss Rebel football plays of 2015-16.
Akeem Judd and Jordan Wilkins demonstrate inertia
Watching these two run through and around Mississippi State's linebackers in the second quarter of the Egg Bowl made it pretty damn obvious which of the two Magnolia State football teams would win.
Wake the hell up, Cooper Bateman
Keep your head on a swivel out there.
Fournette can't outrun a Grand Marquis
I bet Leonard Fournette had no idea that was going to happen.
This is something out of an EA Sports game. There's a play action rollout, busted corner coverage with no safety help, and a ball flung 50+ yards in the air on the damn money. Hell yeah it's unfair that they pulled that off so easily.
Now, with those honorable mentions having been honorably mentioned, here are the top ten plays of the 2015-16 season as determined by the Red Cup Rebellion staff.
10. Mike Hilton upends Leonard Fournette
Leonard Fournette is a tremendous football player. He's big (6'1", 230 pounds) and fast. He was the top running back of the 2014 high school class, and one of the top overall high school prospects for that same year. People expected greatness out of him on day one and he has more-or-less delivered on that promise, playing much of his career with the maturity and moxie of an NFL veteran.
Mike Hilton is also a tremendous football player. He isn't big (5'8", 183 pounds), nor is he known for being particularly fast. He was a lightly recruited high school prospect, whose only other SEC offers were from Kentucky and Mississippi State. To boot, he wasn't even a top-50 prospect out of his own state. To say that Ole Miss fans did not expect much out of Mike Hilton would suggest that there were expectations of him in the first place. He did, however, very quickly endear himself to the Rebel fans, earning playing time at every spot in the defensive backfield and earning starting minutes as an upperclassman. He's got more football instincts and playmaking ability than arguably any Ole Miss defender since Patrick Willis.
This play shows that, while he might not be what Fournette is in terms of raw, amazing athletic talent, Mike Hilton is everything you could ask for in a player in terms of headiness and work ethic. Or, hell, maybe this play doesn't really show that, but it shows a damn good play made by a damn good player in a game that is pretty damn important to Ole Miss fans. Mike has given us a lot to celebrate in Oxford, but seeing him fly around the field draped in Chucky Mullins' No. 38 jersey and keeping a former Heisman frontrunner in check might have been his finest performance.
9. Robert Nkemdiche scores on a swing route against UTM
Big people moving that quickly is unsettling. Like, surely he's pushing the boundaries of the universe here down to a quantum level. If Robert Nkemdiche's combine workout causes a tear in the fabric of the spacetime continuum then, well, you can't say we didn't warn you.
8. Chad Kelly cartwheels into the endzone
This run is everything that Chad Kelly's rungame is. He's quick and shifty enough to play serious SEC ball as a dual threat, and courageous enough to run right into the teeth of a defender. He's so gutsy and nimble that getting upended into a touchdown is really just all in a day's work for Swag.
7. Marquis Haynes and Tony Bridges seal it against Bama
When you play a pesky, scrappy team like Alabama, you've gotta fight until the very end. Even if you establish two 20-point leads at two different points in the second half, you've still got to play every down tough as they're liable to crawl back into it. Thankfully, the Landshark defense was able to stymie the comeback and force one final turnover out of the Alabama offense. WIth Marquis Haynes doing his best Goldberg impression, spearing Jacob Coker to the ground, the quarterback's first down heave late in the game sailed short and fell into the hands of Tony Bridges.
Ole Miss, thankfully, escaped T-Town without being upset that night, due in part to this team effort.
6. Evan Engram takes a screen to the house
(Apologies for the brief glitch in the video quality. -ed)
This was just the perfect convergence of great play calling and execution. On the prior play, Ole Miss was facing a 3rd-and-4 on the 26 yard line when Chad Kelly threw deep to Markell Pack. Holding was called on Justin Bell, and the penalty was accepted by LSU to put Ole Miss just out of field goal range. Facing a 3rd-and-14, but yet another chance to get the ball in the endzone, the Rebel coaches called this screen pass that took advantage of safeties playing deep to stop Chad's big arm and linebackers playing close to stop him on any rollouts or draws. Justin Bell, Aaron Morris, and Laremy Tunsil left the gates open to set up their blocks, Chad rolled right to pull half of the Tiger defense to that side of the field, then flipped it back left to Evan Engram. Engram wiggled through the rest of the LSU defense and scored, putting the Rebs up by 21 in the third quarter and effectively ending the game.
5. Peak Megaquon
Hooboy if this ain't the prettiest thing on this list. This Laquon Treadwell catch was made in the third quarter of Ole Miss' rout of New Mexico State, when the game was already well out of hand. That it was against a bad team in a largely insignificant moment of a snoozer of a game though really does not change how truly stunning a feat this was. While this loop focuses on the catch itself, equally impressive was Treadwell coming down with the ball after he shook a defender out of his ankles to give himself a wide open field. Once he plucked the the overthrown Chad Kelly pass out of the stratosphere, he tiptoed along the sideline and easily scored his second touchdown of the day.
Regardless of the level of competition, this is (almost) the best catch of the year. Few receivers could pull off a play like this and make it look so simple and natural during any game against any team, good or bad, which is why it's on this list.
4. Tony Bridges catches a touchdown pass from Dak Prescott
This is your weekly reminder that the greatest quarterback in Mississippi State history is (barely) 1-3 against Ole Miss.
3. Totally deliberate touchdown pass to Quincy Adaboyejo
This is exactly how the play was drawn up. Luck does not exist in football. Please get out of our mentions.
2. Laremy Tunsil gets his in the Sugar Bowl
From our Sugar Bowl postgame digestion:
Laremy Tunsil was rated the top offensive tackle in high school football three years ago. He signed with Ole Miss along with Laquon Treadwell, the top wide receiver prospect, and Robert Nkemdiche, the top defensive lineman prospect and top overall prospect. Treadwell has had his moments in the spotlight for the Rebs, snagging a gazillion passes, scoring dozens of touchdowns, and writing his own redemption story after suffering a horrifying injury against Auburn last season. Nkemdiche has had his as well, serving as the focal point of a defense that cemented itself as the main identity of the Ole Miss program under Hugh Freeze.
Tunsil, however, has been quietly dominant as a left tackle. Left tackles, it seems, are like shoelaces or car parts; you don't really think about them that much unless they're notdoing what they're supposed to. Tunsil being as good as he has been means that he is almost certainly the MVP of the Rebel offense, but not in a way that is going to get him a highlight on ESPN. Really, the only time he has had any real attention drawn his way as a Rebel was during his gut-wrenching Peach Bowl injury and his 2015 NCAA suspension for some NCAA bullshit or another. It's fair to say then that a guy like him, who has thanklessly done so much to set the stage for future successes in Oxford, deserved his moment in the sun. Hugh Freeze gave it to him, and we couldn't have been any happier for him.
1. Laquon Treadwell's redemptive TD in Auburn
Yes, the catch was impressive; Willie Mays-ing a touchdown grab while a defender is draped across your back is something that only Laquon could make look routine. And yes, the catch did come in the fourth quarter with the Rebels only up by a point, effectively making it the game-winning play. But y'all know why this play means so much more than its context within the Auburn game or even the 2015 season. No Ole Miss fan needs a reminder of Laquon Treadwell's injury against Auburn dashing the hopes of the 2014 season to understand how delightfully redemptive this must have been for him. He put his team's lead out of reach before rising to his feet to stand over his defender, as if to say "nope, not this time."
Even if 2015 ended with a few "what ifs" for Ole Miss fans, seeing one of our most beloved players return to and even surpass his prior form after suffering a tremendous setback made the past few months of football so incredibly special. Laquon Treadwell is a truly transcendent talent that I almost feel we didn't deserve to have in the red and blue. We did though, and we're so damn fortunate to be able to say that.