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A Season Unlike Any Other

By Matt Smith
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Investigations. Notices of Allegations. A 5-7 season. Lawsuits. Bowl Bans. It’s been a miserable 18 months for Ole Miss football, and the worst may not be over.

The university’s NCAA Committee on Infractions hearing is coming at some point this fall, we think. Now, there’s a lawsuit filed by former head coach Houston Nutt accusing current Rebels head coach Hugh Freeze, athletic director Ross Bjork and Associate A.D. for Communications Kyle Campbell of breach of contract by conducting a smear campaign against Nutt related to the January 2016 NCAA Notice of Allegations.

Nevertheless, the Rebels will play 12 football games this season. There won’t be a 13th, as the university self-imposed a one-year postseason ban in February. But with a normal 12-game schedule to play, shouldn’t it be business as usual from September through November?

Yeah, right.

Whether it is 1-11 or 11-1 or anywhere in between, Ole Miss’s season will end on Thanksgiving Night in Starkville against Mississippi State. Without the ability to compete for championships or a bowl game, the Rebels have an inherent test to maintain the daily drive required of a football team during the grind of the season.

“When we first found out, it was devastating,” quarterback Shea Patterson said of the bowl ban. “We all came to Ole Miss wanting to win a national championship, but I think it’s brought us a lot closer together. We’re really looking forward to Sept. 2.”

A 3-0 start for the fourth time in five years is not just possible, but probable. South Alabama and Tennessee-Martin come to Oxford before the Rebels travel west to face a rebuilding California team with a new head coach. The Golden Bears will score, but Ole Miss should score more.

After a week off, there are back-to-back road trips to Alabama and Auburn. See when the adversity might set in?

There’s a plus side to all of this however, although it requires some outside-the-box thinking. Every coach and every player preaches the importance of taking things one game at a time, one week at a time. With standings, polls, and bowl projections being irrelevant to Ole Miss this year, the temptation to look farther down the road isn’t there like it is for teams competing for championships.

Freeze, in a rare moment of positivity about the upcoming season, acknowledged the potential blessings in disguise.

“It’s something that I’ll take from here is that we don’t have to worry about bowl projections,” Freeze said. “I have to confess to you that when they start I’m always watching them and it kind of affects your mindset some. We won’t have to deal with them this year.”

Freeze himself can’t avoid that outside noise. He’ll have NCAA and legal matters to attend to in addition to coaching 12 football games. The players, however, can maintain a sense of tunnel vision on a weekly basis.

“It will allow us to focus in this year on every opponent,” defensive lineman Breeland Speaks said. “It will give guys time to not worry about the extra stuff and just focus in on their opponent that week.”

Championships might not be in the picture, but life lessons are.

“We have an opportunity that I’ve been trying drive to home,” Freeze said. “We have an opportunity to model for a lot of people the proper way to handle a difficult circumstance while choosing to see how blessed you are. They have an opportunity to be developed as mana, as a player, as a student. This outside stuff has nothing to do with that.”

A rocky road undoubtedly lies ahead for the Ole Miss football program. No amount of sugarcoating can make the pending NCAA and legal issues secondary. But with not having to worry about how another SEC West game affects Ole Miss in the race for Atlanta, the Rebels players have a chance this season to do what they love to do: just play football.

If that constitutes a punishment, maybe this whole mess isn’t so terrible after all.

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.