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Senior College Football Columnist

All Ole Miss' Freeze has to do is win

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Ole Miss' win over rival Mississippi St. helped Hugh Freeze's staff secure prized recruit Robert Nkemdiche. (USATSI)
Ole Miss' win over rival Mississippi St. helped Hugh Freeze's staff secure prized recruit Robert Nkemdiche. (USATSI)

DESTIN, Fla. -- Hugh Freeze looked around the halls of the Sandestin Beach Hilton and wondered out loud how many of his peers would have done the same thing. Ole Miss' coach then answered himself, out loud.

"I don't know anybody else who would do that," he said.

It's been almost four months now since Freeze issued this tweet to cyber snipers questioning the legitimacy of his consensus top-10 recruiting class.

If you have facts about a violation, send it to compliance@olemiss.edu. If not, please do not slander these young men or insult their family

And so they replied via that email portal, at least 85 times according to the Memphis Commercial Appeal. The responses varied from the entertaining -- "Go Home Hugh, you're drunk" -- to what AD Ross Bjork said Tuesday was a legit 25-30 beyond the lunatic fringe that the school is looking into.

"There is nothing from those emails that we're majorly concerned with," Bjork said.

The SEC doesn't take kindly to upstarts as it is. But this rising program that wakes up every day banging its head on a cement ceiling in the SEC West has brought this scrutiny on itself. After landing that monster class, Freeze was tired of the innuendo, so he knowingly sought going viral.

He vetted the subject of tweeting his message with school attorneys and Bjork. Then, when the responses started flowing in the school hired a powerful outside firm (William King of Lightfoot, Franklin & White ) to begin sifting through the responses.

"Whether it was right or wrong [to tweet out], as God as my witness, our coaches are doing it the right way," Freeze said Tuesday here at the SEC spring meetings. "If there is somebody out there who is giving us an advantage and it's an illegal advantage, I want to know. There's too much at stake. So tell me."

They have tried. So far, Ole Miss is clean after recruiting way above its pay grade. And there's probably not a coach under the Hilton roof who would have the stones to make the same Twitter dare as Freeze. Now comes the hard part. Freeze has to win. Get out of fourth place in the West, become a factor in a league has a clear and distinct caste system.

Clearly, Ole Miss is not one of the haves at the moment. It's going to be extremely difficult elbowing into the elite this year. Try a five-game stretch in September and October that goes -- at Texas, at Alabama, at Auburn, Texas A&M and LSU.

"Unrealistic expectations always produce frustration," the coach said. "That was my message to all these alumni groups. The reality is we could have a worse record and be a better team."

Either the Rebels come out of that forced march as the "it" team in the SEC, or beaten and bloodied. So, yeah, Freeze has a great recruiting class and all but the defense has to get better. Quarterback Bo Wallace has to improve. The offense may have to outscore people to compensate.

"The difference between us and Alabama right now is [Nick Saban's] got a bunch more Robert Nkemdiches," Freeze said. "We still look at our depth chart and we're not there yet. We're not at an SEC depth chart yet [compared to] LSU, Alabama, Georgia. But we took a step in a right direction."

That step included landing Nkemdiche, the nation's No. 1 recruit, as one of the four five-star recruits in the class. But even that didn't come about until the Rebels beat Mississippi State and won the bowl game to finish 7-6. The mandate from Nkemdiche's parents, Sunday and Beverly -- natives of Nigeria -- was that the program show improvement before Robert would come.

"They told us we needed to be in a bowl game," Freeze said. "They didn't say we needed to beat State but that's what it came down to [to get to a bowl game]. She's in charge, the mom in that culture. That's the queen bee, now. They want to please their mom. Her desires are very important to them."

About Jan. 1, Freeze decided the staff was going all in. There would be no backing off on their top targets. Freeze's staff milked relationships, recruited like mothers, targeted Jan. 25 as a date when they could get all their big recruits under one tent for one big last-push weekend. The plan is to do the same in 2014, two weeks prior to signing day.

This past February, top-ranked receiver Laquon Treadwell signed along with coveted offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil. It was somewhat of a holiday on Tuesday when Nkemdiche enrolled in summer classes. But the game is full of Coach Februarys. Freeze knows the next time isn't going to be as easy.

"Unfortunately, I don't think it will work as well next year because it seems like everybody else has ratcheted up their game," Freeze said of recruiting. "It sure seems like everybody has upped their aggression. Last year at this time I felt like we were pushing as hard as any. Now it's everybody -- Auburn, Tennessee.

"Last year we never really had to fight Auburn or Tennessee for a kid this early. That's changed."

It may be that Feb. 3, 2013, may be a once-in-a-lifetime recruiting confluence of factors for Ole Miss. It's what you do with those recruits that matters. The program hasn't won an SEC title in almost half a century. It has two winning seasons in the last nine. It took that furious finish in 2012 for Freeze to end up 7-6 in his first season with the Rebels.

There is almost no margin for error. None of the five starters on the offensive line missed a start last season. Three got injured in the spring.

"And we were awful," Freeze said.

Prior to Ole Miss, he had been most noted for being Michael Oher's high school coach of book and movie fame. Blind Side helped him get a job on Ed Orgeron's Ole Miss staff. That lasted three seasons.

"I'm better for being around Ed Orgeron," Freeze said. "I give Ed a lot of credit for my experience with him. We were really close on a lot of people in recruiting. Ed had a plan and you just don't vary from the plan. The problem with our plan is you have a tough time having a significant amount of Plan Bs. That can be a problem."

Plan Bs -- it should be noted -- are not those Plan As. And if the Plan As had not flocked to Oxford this year? Even a thinner margin for error.

"We'd be a little behind right now," Freeze speculated. "It would definitely be disappointing."

The 43-year-old Mississippi native arrived at this moment because he refused to let that cement ceiling stop him. How tough can the SEC West be when four years ago he was coaching at an NAIA school that no longer exists.

"I basically told my wife ... 'I'm going to go find the worst college football job and see if I can win,'" Freeze said. That was after not being retained by Houston Nutt at Ole Miss following the departure of Orgeron in 2007.

He found his bounce back at Lambuth University in Jackson, Tenn. The school shut down in 2011. Not before Freeze went 20-5 in two seasons with, according to the coach, "nowhere to dress, no facilities, no stands."

From there, he went to San Jose State briefly before getting the offensive coordinator's job at Arkansas State in 2011. By that time, Hugh Freeze was washed clean. He had won at a no-count NAIA program. He had won 10 games at Arkansas State and captured the Sun Belt.

He had, for one shining moment, become the best recruiter in the SEC.

The next significant date marked on his calendar should be Aug. 1. That's when the NCAA will start holding head coaches more accountable for wrongdoing in their program. It is considered a watershed moment in NCAA enforcement. With his Twitter feed, Freeze already has opened up a portal directly to his compliance office.

Up to this point, accountability hasn't been an issue. Now all Freeze has to do is win.


Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.
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