Column: Ole Miss football: A comeback is in sight

Posted on Nov 9 2017 - 7:59am by John Macon Gillespie

Why did you come to Ole Miss? Was it because of a scholarship, the campus or an area of study? Could it have been the location, the athletic traditions or tailgating?

Whatever the reason, something brought you here.

It’s no secret that the University of Mississippi sells itself not just to students but also to student-athletes. It’s not hard to imagine someone wanting to come to Oxford to play a Division I, SEC-caliber sport. Consistently named one of the most beautiful campuses and tailgating locations in America, offering a solid education and superb athletic facilities, it sounds like a nice setup.

However, with the cloud of controversy that has surrounded Rebel football for the past couple of seasons, it is not uncommon to feel uneasy about the state of the program and its ability to recruit. Of course, an NCAA investigation is tough to sell, especially when there is the possibility of another year of postseason ineligibility coming down the pipe.

The mainstream opinion is that when the investigation concludes, the Ole Miss football program will be forced to endure more than it already has. Coupled with the inconsistency of the Rebels’ play this season, that is a tough hole to dig out of right away.

But what happens if things play out differently and the Committee on Infractions determines the program has suffered enough?

If a mass exodus of players is not brought on by NCAA sanctions, one could conclude that Ole Miss could be poised for a comeback on the gridiron sooner rather than later. The Rebels are graduating a mere 12 seniors this season, and a large majority of team talent (especially on offense) comes from underclassmen. Sure, some of the Rebels’ games have not been pretty, and this team is not the best the campus has ever seen, but what is often overlooked is the lack of the team’s experience.

Ole Miss is currently led by a JUCO-transfer quarterback in Jordan Ta’amu, and before that, it was led by true sophomore Shea Patterson. None of Ole Miss’ five leading receivers are seniors, and although running back Jordan Wilkins exhausts his eligibility this season, he is backed up by capable rushers Eric Swinney and D’Vaughn Pennamon.

While the offense is poised to keep rolling, the majority of Ole Miss’ problems come from the defense. Although the Landshark D is losing key pieces like senior leaders Marquis Haynes and DeMarquis Gates this season, other leading Rebel tacklers still have at least one year of eligibility remaining. That being said, a lack of successful position recruiting is what led to the decline of the Ole Miss defense, and there are glaring holes that need to be filled. With the right personnel in charge of the program, that trend could change quickly.

As the search for the next head coach continues, an emphasis needs to be placed on the ability to recruit. Whoever steps into this uneasy situation in Oxford has a lot of material to lure athletes to the program, and — barring harsher penalties from the NCAA — that person will already have a lot of maturing talent to work with.

The foundation for success has been built, but the question lies in whether it is strong enough to weather the storm. If athletics director Ross Bjork can successfully right the ship and hire a talented head coach with the ability to recruit, Ole Miss football could get brighter in a hurry.