"We all know that their depth is better than a lot of people's, ours included," Hugh Freeze explains to the gathered media. It's the Monday before his Ole Miss Rebels go for three in a row over Bama, and he's been asked what explains his program's recent success against the conference's resident overboard. "We're catching..."—a thoughtful pause and recalibration from a coach who, in his fifth year dealing with SEC media, knows what kind of headlines can come from a quote like that—"We're getting there to where our depth chart is more reflective of theirs."
There are plenty of reasons why Ole Miss has been able to knock off the Tide in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history—strategic mismatches created by Freeze's spread attack, Bama's inability to protect the ball and yes, as any member of Angry Bama Twitter has probably informed you, a degree of luck—but the most significant factor is the unprecedented upswell of talent and depth that Freeze's recruiting success has ushered into Oxford.
Hugh has reeled in a top-20 class on each of the last four National Signing Days, with top eight finishes in 2013 and 2016. He's gone head-to-head with Saban on the crootin trail, wrestling away blue-chippers like Tony Conner, Greg Little, A.J. Brown and D'Vaughn Pennamon. Saban is still recruiting at an entirely different level, but the gulf is narrowing.
In order to get some sort of objective calculation of the shifting talent levels of both teams, I pulled together the 247Sports average composite ratings and the national ranks of the last six classes (dating back to the year before Freeze showed up in Oxford). Recruiting rankings are an imperfect measure of talent for a whole slew of reasons, but they're nevertheless useful for getting a big-picture view.
- 1.00-0.98 = five stars
- 0.97-0.90 = four stars
- 0.89-0.80 = three stars
- >0.79 = two stars
|Avg rating||Class rank||Avg rating||Class rank|
Throw that in graph form and we see that Freeze's program is indeed "getting there."
Of course, Ole Miss is catching up only because Bama doesn't have anywhere to go but down.
The uncontested King of Crootin, Saban has owned the top class six years running and has averaged a 0.93 prospect over the last four classes (for reference, star Ole Miss defensive tackle D.J. Jones was rated 0.9346 out of JUCO). That fact explains why, despite it's recent track record against the Tide, Ole Miss heads into Saturday's showdown as a 10-point home dog.
There's still a significant gulf in talent between these two teams. The graphics below compare the star ratings (again from the 247 Composite) of the offensive and defensive starters.
(Turn your screen sideways if you're on mobile.)
(Note: Rebel strong-side defensive end Fadol Brown and middle linebacker Rommel Mageo were two-stars coming out of high school, but would have been higher had they been re-graded at the time of their transfers to Ole Miss—another reason recruiting rankings are an imperfect measure of talent. I used .80, the minimum grade for a three-star, for both.)
The talent level of Bama's starters is still significantly higher than that of Ole Miss.
|Ole Miss offense||Bama offense||Ole Miss defense||Bama defense||Ole Miss overall||Bama overall|
Fortunately for Ole Miss, raw talent isn't the only factor in a football game.
Otherwise, we'd just hand the national championship trophy to Saban on National Signing Day each year. Matchups, scheming, motivation, poise, injuries, luck and a whole lot more go into the incalculable amalgamation that determines results on Saturdays. As long as a team's talent level is competitive with that of its opponent, it can hope that the other factors tip the scale.
Those last couple of Houston Nutt teams could have had all of the luck and coaching in the world, but they didn't have the dudes to compete with the Tide. That's what Freeze has changed. The talent in his locker room isn't on par with Bama's and probably never will be, but he's closed the gap enough to make his team competitive.
And as long as a game's competitive, anything can happen.