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July 16, 2013For the past three years, Mississippi State had its opportunity to crack the upper echelon of the Southeastern Conference's Western Division.
The Bulldogs were unsuccessful as they remained in the bottom half of the division. Now, in just his second season in Oxford, coach Hugh Freeze has Ole Miss poised to see if it can become a contender in the SEC West.
The Rebels defeated Mississippi State in the regular-season finale to become bowl eligible. Then, Ole Miss easily handled Pittsburgh in a bowl game to finish at 7-6. When the conference predictions come out Thursday, the Rebels will probably be pegged for a fourth-place finish in the SEC West.
Freeze took over an Ole Miss program which won two of 12 games in 2011. The Rebels were blown out just three times last season - against Texas, Alabama and Georgia.
"We had a reasonable expectation last year of competing over a 60-minute span each game," said Freeze at SEC Football Media Days on Tuesday at the Hyatt Regency Birmingham Hotel in Hoover, Ala. "We accomplished that except for two halves.
"We made great strides in a lot of areas. (Making strides) had to do with holding ourselves personally accountable. We are not there yet, but we are getting there."
Freeze knows that the Rebels are not yet ready to compete against an Alabama and or a LSU. More depth has to be built. However, Freeze feels that improvement is being made.
"We had some good fortune last year," Freeze said. "We started the same five offensive linemen each game. Our defensive line was healthy. We got some injuries in the spring and that told me that we are not where we need to be in this league.
"We had a lot of offseason surgeries on the offensive line. (Quarterback) Bo Wallace had surgery. How those guys will be when camp starts is a worry. We are a little thin at defensive end. We are still thin at cornerback and safety."
Different vibe surrounding LSU
If Ole Miss is going to increase its conference-win total of three games from a year ago, Wallace must continue his development. As a first-year starter, Wallace accounted for almost 2,400 yards and 30 touchdowns. But, he threw 17 interceptions. He missed spring practice because of shoulder surgery.
"The biggest negative for Bo was not getting quality reps against a live defense in spring," Freeze said. "In fall practice, we've got to him to be prepared to take care of the football. He's got to understand that it's okay to punt.
"Bo's play will dictate a lot of our success. Hopefully, he has matured some. I know he has matured off the field. Bo understands he's the starter. He's a very good kid, a competitor. He played nine games with a banged up shoulder. That showed a lot."
Will Muschamp experienced both ends of the spectrum in his first two seasons as Florida coach. In 2011, the Gators needed a bowl victory against Ohio State to have a winning record. In 2012, Florida lost one regular-season game. The year ended poorly when Louisville crushed the Gators in the Sugar Bowl.
Muschamp feels Florida is making strides in the post-Urban Meyer era which produced two national titles and dozens of off-the field problems. The Gators have a tricky schedule - road games against Miami, LSU and South Carolina - with a team which must replace 11 starters.
"Our roster and our locker room are much better," Muschamp said. "Eight come-from-behind wins says a lot about our players' buy-in. We had a young quarterback last year. We were deficient in depth and talent in some areas. We had a good defense and good special teams. So, we protected the ball."
If Florida is going to knock off Georgia and South Carolina in the SEC East, quarterback Jeff Driskel must be the leader. A year ago, Driskel accounted for just a little more than 2,000 yards. With 1,000-yard rusher Mike Gillislee gone, Driskel must direct a more productive passing game.
"We have to be more consistent and more efficient throwing the football," Muschamp said. "We have to have more explosive plays down the field. We need to limit the negative plays, the sacks and the penalties.
"I am much more comfortable with Jeff Driskel in year two. He's a hard worker, a great leader, a great athlete. He has tremendous arm talent. As the game slows down, you pick things up faster. You learn from the situations after you have been in them."
The Gamecocks have put together back-to-back 11-win seasons the past two years. In the previous season, South Carolina advanced to the SEC title game where it was embarrassed by eventual national champion Auburn.
Steve Spurrier, who is starting his ninth season as Gamecocks coach, is now the school's leader in victories with 66. But, there is one accomplishment remaining for Spurrier - bringing a SEC championship to Columbia.
Questions for each SEC football team
"We've got a pretty good team," Spurrier said. "How good? I don't know. We have a lot of good players, no All-America players except for (defensive end) Jadeveon (Clowney). Whether we are a great team only time will tell.
"It has been fun watching these players develop. They train like champions. We are not favorites to win the conference, but we are capable. Winning the conference is something we have not done at South Carolina. We have hopes to do it."
Georgia will probably be the favorite to win the SEC East. The Gamecocks have beaten the Bulldogs each of the last two seasons only to see Georgia come back to win the division by one game. Three losses to Western Division teams have cost South Carolina two more trips to the SEC title game.
For the first time in three years, the Gamecocks get a scheduling break. South Carolina plays none of the SEC West's top teams - Alabama, Texas A&M and LSU. Meanwhile, both Georgia and Florida must take on LSU.
"Not everybody has the same schedule right now," Spurrier said. "The last two years Georgia won all their other games, so that one game doesn't mean everything. The last three years we have been in the hunt. We are knocking on the door. We have to win those crucial games."
Missouri was the newcomer which was expected to make some noise in its initial season in the SEC. But, the Tigers ended up being overshadowed by Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel. The Aggies posted an 11-2 record and Manziel won the Heisman Trophy.
Meanwhile, Missouri endured an injury-plagued season. The Tigers won just five games, two in the SEC. The losing record was the first for Missouri since 2004.
"Last year was a difficult year for us," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. "We are used to winning. The SEC is what I thought it would be. It's a line-of-scrimmage league. The offensive and defensive lines are where it starts. I don't care how many skill position players you have."
Even though Pinkel stressed the need for good line play, he acknowledged that the loss of quarterback James Franklin last season was the major reason for Missouri's problems. Franklin missed three games and didn't complete three others. Franklin accounted for less than 1,700 yards.
"I have been a head coach for 23 years and this was the first time I lost a starting quarterback," Pinkel said. "This offense starts with the quarterback. He must distribute the ball in this offense. Last year was a difficult year for all of our perimeter players because we didn't get the ball distributed as we should."
Missouri has the chance to get off to a 4-0 start with non-conference games against Murray State, Toledo, Indiana and Arkansas State. The Tigers begin their conference schedule on the road against Vanderbilt.
"We lost five of our top ten offensive linemen and our starting quarterback last year," Pinkel said. "But, I am paid to overcome whatever happens to us. When things get tough, you just focus on doing your job. We have to get back to winning. That's what we do at Missouri."
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