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Taking the measure of Ole Miss football for the 2017 season

Hugh Freeze’s sudden resignation generates questions about the style and personality of Ole Miss’ on-field product. What’s that gonna look like this season?

NCAA Football: SEC Media Days Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze resigned on Thursday night after it was discovered that he had placed a call to a number associated with a Tampa, Fla. escort service using his school-issued cellphone. The program, which has already taken a number of hits in recent years due to a seemingly never-ending NCAA investigation, has been set back even further.

The move also came at an unideal time, with the season opener just six weeks away. We’ve discussed ad nauseam the circumstances surrounding Freeze’s resignation, and now it’s time to start looking at what this means for the future of Ole Miss football.

Short term effects

The immediate effects of this are the most obvious. Matt Luke, formerly the offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator, has been named the interim head coach for the 2017 season. Ole Miss will need to hire another assistant to replace him. Also, the program is going lose a number of recruits. Two 3-star defensive backs have already decommitted, Jaylin Williams from the 2018 class and Bobby Wolfe from the 2019 class.

Williams and Wolfe are likely only the beginning; expect more decommitments over the coming weeks and months. Finally, there is the possibility of players transferring to other programs. Working in the Rebels’ favor, though, is that any transfers would still have to sit out a season. There are no indications as of yet that any Rebels plan to transfer, but we can’t rule it out.

Medium term

In the medium term, Luke is likely to be the head coach for the 2017 season, and as Sports Illustrated’s Bruce Feldman notes, he’ll be strongly considered for the permanent job if he is even remotely successful. Working in Luke’s favor this season is a potentially explosive offense, led by sophomore quarterback Shea Patterson, the No. 1 quarterback in his recruiting class. He threw for 880 yards and six touchdowns in three games last year after Chad Kelly tore his ACL against Georgia Southern.

At Patterson’s disposal is a stable of big, athletic receivers, led by Van Jefferson (49 catches, 543 yards, three touchdowns) and A.J. Brown (29 catches, 412 yards, two touchdowns). In addition, D.K. Metcalf will be returning from a broken foot suffered in the second game of last season.

Working against Luke, however, is the defense. They allowed 6.18 yards per play and 34 points per game last season, and new defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff will be working with largely the same personnel. It’s hard for the defense to be worse than last season, but it’s likely that it still won’t be good enough for the offense to overcome.

Most projections have the Rebels going 5-7 or 6-6, and that was before Freeze’s resignation. It’ll be almost impossible to predict how this season will go, but if Luke shows that he can succeed in the role, the job is his.

Long term

If we take a broad view of this, the program is now back to where it’s usually been: near the bottom of the SEC. There is uncertainty at head coach, scholarship losses, bowl bans, and subpar recruiting classes. The Freeze era set high expectations for a traditionally moribund program, and now fans will (likely) have to deal with more losing.

Right now, the program could potentially attract an offensive-minded coach, especially one who runs a spread offense. This team led the SEC and was 13th in the country with 315 passing yards per game in 2016, and the personnel is already in place. They’d have to deal with whatever penalties the NCAA decides to levy, but they’d gain the ability to work with Patterson and the receivers. Personally, I’d love to hire a coach that will sling the ball around and we become known for it, like Mike Leach. Whoever the Rebels hire won’t be as innovative as Leach, but it would give the program an identity it’s been lacking.

Ultimately, it appears that the program is back to square one, albeit with a lot of talent on the offensive side of the ball. The Rebels are likely to dwell in the basement of the SEC for the next few seasons. Depending on the coach they hire and NCAA punishments, it could be a while before this program is competitive again.