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July 17, 2014
SEC Football Media Days: Thursday
Hugh Freeze took over a downtrodden Ole Miss football program in 2012.
In Houston Nutt's last two seasons as coach, the Rebels won just six of 24 games. Just one of those victories came against a Southeastern Conference opponent - Kentucky in 2010.
In just his third year, Freeze has Ole Miss knocking on the door of the big boys in the SEC West. The Rebels have a 15-11 record in Freeze's first two seasons - certainly nothing spectacular. Ole Miss has a 6-10 record against SEC teams. But, Ole Miss has won bowl games against Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech.
"To be very candid, the journey we've been on is faster than I thought possible," said Freeze at the league's media days Thursday at the Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover (Ala.). "When I first arrived here, I thought hopefully we would be going to a bowl game in year three.
"We were able to do that in year one and two and won both of them. We had some very nice wins last year - going to Texas and winning and beating LSU. We didn't finish the season like we wanted. But with the recruiting our coaches have done and two successful seasons, expectations are raised."
Ole Miss returns 15 starters, including quarterback Bo Wallace. The Rebels have a number of all-league candidates - wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche and safety Cody Prewitt.
But, there is still work to do for the Rebels. Ole Miss has a 5-7 record against Western Division teams under Freeze. The Rebels have failed to beat either Alabama or Texas A&M. The lone SEC team Ole Miss has beaten on the road is Arkansas in 2012.
"The buy-in percentage from our kids and staff is at an all-time high," Freeze said. "It's not totally there. Leadership will be the key. We haven't developed leadership within our locker room to the point that I am totally happy with. We are better than we were."
Regular-season ending losses to Missouri and Mississippi State prevented Ole Miss from having nine victories entering its bowl. The Rebels get both Alabama and Auburn, projected to be the top two teams in the SEC West, at Vaught-Hemmingway Stadium. Ole Miss' toughest road test will be LSU.
"Having those two teams at home certainly is advantageous," Freeze said. "I said on day one that my expectations were to make Ole Miss very relevant in the SEC West. This year we should be that. My expectation is that we should be competitive in every game."
The last time the Crimson Tide entered a season following a bowl loss, the year ended in an undefeated national championship. Alabama lost to Utah in the Sugar Bowl at the end of the 2008 season. The Tide won 14 straight games, climaxed by a victory against Texas in the 2009 national title game.
When Alabama begins the 2014 campaign, it will be riding on a two-game losing streak. The Crimson Tide lost its chance to win the SEC title when Auburn escaped with a miracle 34-28 victory. Then, Oklahoma whipped Alabama 45-31 in the Sugar Bowl.
Three-year starter AJ McCarron is no longer the quarterback. Florida State transfer Jacob Coker, his probable replacement, has never participated in a Crimson Tide practice. Alabama must replace two first-round NFL draft picks on defense - linebacker C.J. Mosley and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
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Still, the Crimson Tide, and not Auburn, was the media's pick to win the SEC title Friday. Alabama coach Nick Saban acknowledged that the atmosphere surrounding the team this August is different from recent years.
"Our situation as a team is a lot different this year than it's been the last couple of years when we were coming off championship seasons," Saban said. "The challenges were so much different in terms of trying to deal with success and complacency.
"Having lost our last two games, it's a little bit different mindset with our players. We have to re-establish our identity as a team at Alabama. It's going to take every player to have a tremendous amount of buy-in for us to be able to do that."
Saban was playing his normal mind games Friday. Players must "check the ego at the door." There must be "trust and a belief in the things that have helped us be successful." However, Saban stressed that improvement on the field must be made.
"We're basically an unproven team in some areas," Saban said. "There are a lot of question marks because of the players that we lost and the players we have coming in. In some cases, it's a critical position like quarterback. We have a little bit of that in the offensive line.
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"Defensively, we probably weren't quite as good last year as we were in the past. We're in a little bit of a rebuilding situation even though we played a lot of young players who have the right attitude and character to improve and be more consistent."
Undoubtedly, Mark Stoops has the most challenging task in the SEC. The Wildcats are coming off back-to-back 2-10 seasons. Kentucky has lost 16 consecutive conference games. In his first year in Lexington, Stoops watched his Wildcats lose six league games by at least 13 points.
As recent as 2010, Kentucky was wrapping up an appearance in a fifth straight bowl game. However, those Wildcats teams were reaching bowl eligibility by winning their non-conference games. Kentucky has not had a break-even SEC record since 2006.
Kentucky is not close to having a roster which can contend for the Eastern Division title. For that reason, Stoops will not measure progress this season by wins and losses.
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"How we measure success is how we prepare," Stoops said. "Our players are paying the price. Our coaches are putting them in a position to be successful. We must do everything we can to put ourselves in a position to win each game.
"We don't dwell on anything that's gone on in the past. We all take accountability in wins and losses. We all accept that. Obviously, it would be important to win six games and be bowl eligible. I won't put that mark on it because I don't want to give up the other six. We have to stay the course and compete."
The personnel is not there to contend with most SEC teams. Defensive end Bud Dupree was the only Kentucky player on the three preseason all-conference teams. The starting quarterback is not known.
"We played eight true freshmen and four first-year junior college players last year," Stoops said. "So we have 15 returning starters and 36 guys in our program who have started at least one game.
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"So, we're starting to build a little depth. We're still young. Roughly 60 percent of our team has been a part of our program since January 2013 when I arrived. That being said, I'm excited about this team."
Kentucky is starting to put more resources into its football program. Basketball will always be No. 1 in the Bluegrass State. But, Louisville has shown that a Kentucky school can be a champion in football as well as basketball.
"We have an awful lot of good things going on a Kentucky," Stoops said. "We're in the midst of construction on a $120 million renovation in our stadium. We're in the design phase of a state-of-the-art football-only building which will be done in 2016.
"I feel very blessed to be the head coach at Kentucky. I feel well supported by our administration and appreciate everything they are doing. Not only are we building big fancy buildings, but we also building a football program."
Mark Richt has put together an outstanding body of work in his 13 years as Bulldogs coach. Georgia has averaged nearly ten victories a year. The Bulldogs have been to a bowl game every year and have won two SEC titles. Of course, there is one missing accomplishment - a national championship.
Georgia will have another good team in 2014 with 13 returning starters. The Bulldogs have Todd Gurley, who is considered the top running back in the SEC. Linebackers Ramik Wilson and Jordan Jenkins are all-conference caliber players.
However, there is one huge question - quarterback where four-year starter Aaron Murray must be replaced. Fifth-year senior Hutson Mason, who did get to make two starts after Murray was injured last season, gets the nod at quarterback.
Everyone recalls the last time Georgia was in this situation. Fifth-year senior D.J. Shockley replaced multi-year starter David Greene in 2005. All Shockley did was lead the Bulldogs to the SEC title. Georgia has not won a conference championship since that year.
"Hutson and I had three or four conversations about him staying at Georgia," Richt said. "I didn't say, 'I think you should stay no matter what.' I talked about what could happen if he stayed.
"Hutson has really sacrificed a lot for this team. He's staying because he loves Georgia. He especially loves his teammates. He also knew that he was going to be surrounded by a lot of skill guys and a defense that should mature from a year ago."
Mason will have a number of options on offense - running backs Gurley and Keith Marshall, wide receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Chris Conley, not to mention tight end Jay Rome.
The Bulldogs return seven starters from a defense which had its problems a year ago. In all four of its regular-season losses, Georgia allowed at least 31 points. In fact, the Bulldogs have not given up fewer than 30 points in a regular-season defeat since 2010 - a 29-27 loss to Colorado.
Richt has a new defensive coaching staff, which will be led by former Florida State coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. Before going to the Seminoles program, Pruitt was a member of Nick Saban's staff at Alabama.
"Coach Pruitt has won everywhere he's been," Richt said. "All the new defensive coaches know how to take a kid from ground zero. They know how to teach fundamentals extremely well. They've all been on college teams who have won national championships. These guys know what it's like to win big."
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