If there’s a silver lining in Ole Miss’ embarrassing 55-20 Egg Bowl beatdown—a loss that ensures the Rebels won’t go bowling—its that the disastrous end to the 2016 season will force Hugh Freeze to make overdue changes to a coaching staff that’s shown weaknesses for years.
Sources have told Ben Garrett of The Ole Miss Spirit that co-offensive coordinators Dan Werner and Matt Luke are the only locks to return next season, with running backs coach Derrick Nix and receivers coach Grant Heard also looking safe.
Everyone else should be touching up their resumes.
“We’ve got to look at everyone and everybody,” Freeze said after his archival piled up over 500 yards of offense. “We were not good and when you can’t stop their base stuff, we’ve got to figure out is it process, is it people, what exactly is it. We’ve got a lot of young kids over there who I think have the potential to be good but we’ve got to go recruit better and then do an exhaustive study on all of our staff and system.”
Freeze has long placed heavy importance on loyalty and continuity among his team of assistants. His original Ole Miss staff from 2012—a group comprised almost exclusively of guys who either coached with Freeze at Arkansas State or had preexisting connections to Ole Miss—has remained almost untouched through five seasons, the most notable change coming when defensive assistant/special teams coordinator Tom Allen was hired away as USF’s defensive coordinator. Freeze filled that hole by hiring from within, promoting recruiting assistant Corey Batoon in a move criticized by many as nepotistic.
Freeze would argue that he’s built a close-knit, family environment with an emphasis on personal connections. Others would say he’s surrounded himself with a group of sycophantic yes men. Either way, getting blown out at home by a seven-loss State team will force Freeze to make changes.
Those changes started before the Egg Bowl even kicked off. Defensive coordinator Dave Wommack, who followed Freeze over from Jonesboro in 2012, announced his retirement plans early Saturday afternoon. The move had been rumored since before the season, but any choice Wommack had in the matter was removed by his defense’s utter incompetence down the stretch. Ole Miss came into the Egg Bowl ranked 69th in defensive S&P+ and 93rd in points per game. Mississippi State exposed the same problems the defense has had all season: young defensive backs out of position, a woeful linebacking corps leaving gaping holes for runners, a defensive front failing to control the line.
"I haven't seen a year like this before, to be honest,” Wommack said last week after allowing Vandy to rack up 38 points. “Somehow, we are not reinforcing our principles to them enough or clearly enough or something. It really hurts. We have built our program up pretty good the first four years and were proud of some of the things we had done defensively, but this season is so disappointing to me and I can only look in the mirror."
A bad defense got even worse as the season progressed, and that’s what sealed Wommack’s fate.
The changes won’t stop there. A team that entered the season ranked No. 11 in the country couldn’t even get bowl eligible, and fans and administrators won’t be content with the departure of a 60-year-old DC who was heading out the door anyway. The staff needs fresh ideas and outside perspective. It needs people willing to challenge staid practices, willing to speak up and say, “Have you ever thought about doing it this way instead?”
The wrinkle in all of this, of course, is the omnipresent shadow cast by the NCAA. We’ve seen how damaging the lingering investigation has been on the recruiting trail, so its safe to assume it could hamper coaching searches as well. That means Freeze will have to be that much bolder, that much more creative in rebuilding his staff.
This offseason could define Freeze’s career in Oxford. Make the right hires and the program will stabilize and resume its ascent. Whiff and Ole Miss could lock itself into a cycle of mediocrity that could one day cost Freeze his job.