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Remembering Ole Miss football 2016, the season that never was

Take your high expectations and incinerate them.

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Ole Miss football 2016 was a non-entity.

When in recent memory has a Rebels football season begun with such high expectations and ended with just dismal results? Ole Miss had the players, experience and moxie to blast off in 2016, but serious kinks on defense and the offensive line exposed themselves early and often, and now the Rebels aren’t bowling for the first time since 2012. Crippled by injuries (including one to the conference’s best quarterback), lack of defensive depth and an unimaginative coaching staff that’s already begun to be overhauled, Ole Miss watched its dreams of SEC West contention crumble into a 5-7 campaign.

The Rebels were picked to finish third in the division. They finished dead last.

The Rebels began the season ranked No. 11 in the country. They vanished from the polls by Week 8.

What the hell happened? Here’s the story of that disappointment, one week at a time.

Ole Miss 34, Florida State 45

The first 25 minutes of Ole Miss’ season couldn’t have gone any better. A three-possession lead over a top five team on the Monday night of opening weekend is an exuberant sight to behold. The offense ate up yards in the first half, and FSU couldn’t move the ball with freshman Deondre Francois at the helm. Dalvin Cook looked downright human, dropping a fumble on a sure touchdown.

Even Pat Forde took some time off from re-reading the Ole Miss NOA response to watch the Rebs, y’know, actually play football.

But then the Noles marched down the field in the closing minutes of the second quarter and the dream died. The score was 28-6 in favor of Ole Miss with 4:49 left before halftime. From there, FSU outscored Ole Miss 39-6.

In the moment, the season opener caused a fleeting whiplash. That the Rebels went toe-to-toe with juggernaut FSU’s defense but failed in the end was a tough pill to swallow, but there was reason for hope. The team could score points and do so with a frequency that might’ve masked the defense’s shortcomings. Who knows what the Landshark unit would’ve looked like had Webster not gone down on the season’s first defensive drive. It probably doesn’t matter.

With the hindsight of the 2016 season, however, the FSU game was a perfect snapshot of the Rebs’ ceiling and floor, perfectly distilled in one Orlando night.

Ole Miss 38, Wofford 13

Perhaps most infuriating thing about the 2016 campaign was the disorienting redefinition of which games the Rebs were “supposed to win.” Were they supposed to beat Memphis? Arkansas? Hell, VANDERBILT? Would the first or second half of the FSU game Rebels show up on any given day, much less on any given play? They beat them Terriers, though.

Ole Miss 43, Alabama 48

The Bama game brought some grounding, at least, to the idea that these boys could be on a historic trajectory. As soon as the final whistle sounded on 2015’s game in Tuscaloosa, you’d be hard-pressed to really believe that Freeze could topple Saban three years in a row.

And then ... the offense started scoring again. Like, A LOT of scoring on Bama’s vaunted defense. (As of this writing, nobody has scored a touchdown on the Tide since Oct. 22, 2016.) The Rebs out-gained Alabama, by not by much, 522-492 yards. With under two minutes left in the first half, Ole Miss was firmly in command — whatever the hell that means anymore — 24-3, and the route was on. And yet.

College football, meet Jalen Hurts. Let’s call this one The Jalen Hurts Game. Hurts threw for 19-of-31 and 158 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions. He also ran for 146 yards on 18 carries.

14 Bama points in the final 120 seconds of the second quarter spelled doom for Ole Miss. Suddenly it was a one-score game, but really the Rebs were never in it from then on. They fought valiantly, in pockets, but still the Tide prevailed astride a 45-19 onslaught in the game’s final 32 minutes. No Adeboyejo magic, yes, a half-hearted attempt at heroics from Kelly, but the day was done. Add in two defensive touchdowns from the Tide, and welcome to .333, Rebel fans.

Ole Miss 45, Georgia 14

Thus reeling from two of the most high-profile games of the year — and losing them in awful, marvelous fashion — having Georgia and new coach Kirby Smart come to town offered a fine palate cleanser. It also helped that this game kicked off at 11 a.m. CT, while everyone was still asleep who might witness the carnage.

And carnage the Rebs delivered. Ole Miss racked up 510 yards to Georgia’s 396 and forced two turnovers. Their efficiency was lights-out: Ole Miss required just 61 offensive plays to Georgia’s 81 (the Rebs’ possessed the ball for 11:36 less than the Bulldogs). Back to .500, back to 1-1 in conference play, and a thorough trouncing of a shiny new SEC East coach. Surely, Ole Miss is back, right?

Again, with the hindsight of this season available to us, the complete dismantling of the Dawgs spoke volumes more about that team’s struggles than about any sort of Rebel stability. Georgia out-rushed Ole Miss, 230-180 yards. Rebel drives fizzled out under the direction of Jason Pellerin, a gimmick that made its appearances too often in this game and after.

No, this didn’t signal the return of Rebel can-do football. They should have run wild on Georgia for 50+ points that day, but they didn’t.

Ole Miss 48, Memphis 28

Sure, whatever. Glad this bullshit series is over and we can get back to focusing on real teams like —

Ole Miss 30, Arkansas 34

Ah, hell. Never forget that Freeze, Wommack and Werner had TWO WEEKS to prepare for Bret Bielema’s Razorpigs. Never forget that Austin Allen — who, the week previous, had been nearly gutted by Texas A&M — threw three touchdown passes and just one interception. Never forget that Chad Kelly — who, you may remember, has a very accurate cannon attached to his right shoulder — was the team’s leading rusher with 89 yards. And never forget that Arkansas possessed the ball for 20 minutes longer than Ole Miss.

It was here, though, deep into October and ranked No. 12, that the Rebs’ SEC season hopes were cast into their death throes. Two losses in the conference might get you to Atlanta out of the East; not so over here on the varsity side of the timezone.

Ole Miss 21, LSU 38

It feels like ancient history that Les Miles once coached this Tigers squad in 2016. While Ole Miss was zooming up and down the top 25 rankings, LSU limped itself out to a hideous 2-2 start and promptly shit-canned the Mad Hatter. Enter Ed Orgeron, who thoroughly worked over Missouri in his first game at the helm, then repeated the effort against Southern Miss.

Now that he’s going to be the full-time guy moving forward, it’s quaint to think back on all of those contests — beginning with the Ole Miss game — that prompted the now-moot “IS COACH O COACHING FOR HIS JOB THIS WEEK?” His team plays like hell for him, emotional commando that he is, and they boosted Leonard Fournette to 284 yards and three touchdowns, an LSU record against SEC opponents.

May we never say that Ole Miss didn’t make history this year.

Ole Miss 29, Auburn 40

Speaking of history-making efforts, Kamryn Petway had a career night against the Rebs, going off for 236 yards and a touchdown in Oxford. There was also a more innocent time — like back in Week 2 — when rumblings out of the Plains swirled about Gus Malzahn’s proximity to a warm chair, but you gotta hand it to him this year: aided by a pair of bullish runners and a surprisingly dominant defense, the Tigers had something of a statement season.

As for Freeze and the Rebs, their statement was far, far different, if anything at all. How do you describe a flameout tailspin other than what it is? Conference losses Nos. 3 and 4 in consecutive weeks? Kelly yet again the team’s leading rusher with 40 damn yards? And where are the linebackers? Is that John Youngblood losing contain again? Mercy.

Ole Miss 37, Georgia Southern 27

The great terror of House of Leaves is the never-ending staircase that grows with one’s horrified imagination. Surely, this thing bottoms out eventually, right? It doesn’t, and to be sure this basement goes all the way down.

That Kelly went down with a torn ACL and lateral meniscus so late in the proceedings is probably what saved the bacon against Georgia Southern. Jason Pellerin came in to make sure snaps didn’t go flying and still the Rebs only managed a 10-point win. Nothing done for strength of schedule, just a bum quarterback and the looming question of Shea Patterson’s redshirt situation. To say nothing of the fact that the defense gave up 27 points to Georgia freaking Southern.

Ole Miss 29, Texas A&M 28

The Shea Game. The ebullient giddiness of a brand new toy that can throw for 338 yards and two touchdowns against the No. 8 team in the land. A furious fourth-quarter comeback and open comparisons to one Johnny Manziel. A dramatic field goal to seal the deal in the game’s closing seconds. An SEC run is right out this year, yes, but a bowl game isn’t necessarily out of reach. Just win one more. Shea can do it.

How naive we were.

Ole Miss 17, Vanderbilt 38

It might’ve actually been a good thing that Ole Miss’ defense made Vanderbilt look like an offensive killing machine, because it exposed those serious lacks in preparation that attended the season’s final two games. Better to have the pants beaten off you and shown for what you really are.

Ole Miss 20, Mississippi State 55

That is to say, if Freeze was going to lose this year’s Egg Bowl, it’s best that he did so in spectacularly dismal fashion. He needs to make changes across the board, both at position coaching and coordinating. If it takes a 35-point trouncing at the hands of Dan Mullen in Oxford, then so be it.

What’s most perplexing in an autopsy of the 2016 season is the broad range of talent across virtually every position group — especially on offense — and the utter failure to approach even a modicum of that talent’s potential. This year’s Rebs had eight, maybe nine, wins in them. They struggled to get five, and they were 2-2 in November.

In a normal season progression, the Rebs should’ve been playing their best football of the year in the closing weeks. It’s only logical: practice, film study and conditioning should coalesce late for the team’s best performances against state rivals and beatable Vanderbilts. Instead, a sharp regression took place after the LSU and Auburn games — and especially after Kelly was lost — a regression that was falsely plugged with Patterson’s gutsy, once-in-a-season performance.

Shea will get better. The wide receivers will remain indomitable giants. Maybe the offensive line will improve. Eugene Brazley and D’Vaughn Pennamon hold promise. There are undeniable athletes on the other side of the ball, and it’s up to Freeze to find someone who can marshal them into something resembling an SEC defense.