July 17, 2014 6:13:39 PM
HOOVER, Ala. -- Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze believes his program ahead of schedule.
But standing on stage in the main room at Southeastern Media Days on Thursday morning, the third-year coach stopped short of saying exactly where he thinks that journey will carry the Rebels in 2014.
"I said on day one that my expectations were to make Ole Miss very relevant in the SEC West," said Freeze. "And I think this year we should be that. I think our track here has been faster than I ever thought it would be. Frankly, I thought by year 3 we could be in a bowl game. I didn't think we'd win a bowl game in our first two seasons. This year, we should be competitive in every game."
That's the expectation among SEC Media members, which picked Ole Miss to finish fourth in the SEC's Western Division and awarded the Rebels two votes to bring home the overall conference title.
The Rebels could have the talent to do just that. Returning 16 starters, including the SEC's leading returning passer in senior QB Bo Wallace, Freeze believes "We finally have a team that I think has the depth to be a totally competitive team in the SEC."
Wallace was one of three player representatives on hand for the Rebels, who finished 8-5 a season ago with a Music City Bowl win over Georgia Tech. For the senior QB, who passed for 3,346 yards and 18 touchdowns as a junior, the goals have become bigger in Oxford, but the pressure remains the same.
"No, we don't feel any pressure at all," said Wallace. "We are confident that we can get into late game with those teams. Like I said, we are a darkhorse and we know that and we are working every day to try and win an SEC championship."
The Rebels looked on track to have a huge season last year but stumbled down the stretch, dropping a home game against Missouri before falling to arch-rival Mississippi State in overtime. It was the fourth Egg Bowl loss in five seasons for Ole Miss, a fact that doesn't sit well with Rebel safety Cody Prewitt.
"State, next question," said Prewitt when asked which loss hurt the most in 2013. "The thing that everybody has an equal amount of is time. And it's up to us to use our time in the best possible way. So this summer when we're working, we have to make sure we're using our time better than they are at Mississippi State."
Prewitt was one of three Rebels selected to the media All-SEC Preseason First Team. He was joined by sophomore defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche and offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, a player that Ole Miss defensive end CJ Johnson called "The best offensive tackle in the country."
Nkemdiche and Tunsil are each part of a sophomore class that came into Oxford as a top five recruiting class in the country. Now in its second year, Freeze believes that class could be the backbone of a team that takes another step forward.
"Physically I look at them right now and I couldn't be more pleased," said Freeze. "There's no question that when we look back on this season, those guys will have a huge role in defining how successful we are."
A lot will hinge on the right arm of Wallace, who Freeze says "Could own every major passing record in Ole Miss history." The Pulaski, Tennessee, native played brilliantly at times in 2013 but struggled down the stretch, failing to throw a touchdown pass and tossing six interceptions in the Rebels' final two games.
To remedy that and to work on issues brought about by a shoulder injury that lingered most of last season, Wallace said he took extra steps in the offseason to improve.
"Well I went to go see Tom House in L.A.," said Wallace. "He's a mechanics guru that has worked with a lot of guys that have had shoulder injuries. I went out there just to get some velocity back and things like that. I feel it's one of the best decisions I've made."
Speaking of decisions, the assembled media attending the event voted Wallace as its third team QB on the preseason all-conference list. Wallace is listed behind first-teamer Nick Marshall of Auburn and second-teamer Dak Prescott of Mississippi State.
"I didn't think I'd be first. I figured Nick Marshall would be first with the way he led them to a national championship. You can't argue against that," Wallace said. "But I didn't think I was going to be third. I think just the way I ended the year. If we win that game in Mississippi State the voting is going to be a lot different. The hype is going to be a lot different. So that's why that's happening, But you know it puts a chip on my shoulder."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brandon Walker on Twitter @BWonStateBeat