OXFORD, Mississippi (AP) — Mississippi coach Hugh Freeze regularly talks about how his team should compete for a Southeastern Conference title.
Some of the Rebels’ players even take it a step further during conversations, dreaming about games in November that have national playoff implications.
They’re certainly lofty goals. But for the first time in a long time, they don’t sound completely crazy.
“We’re a factor now,” Freeze said at the beginning of preseason camp. “And we’re not going away.”
Ole Miss finished with a 9-4 record last season and returns several important players from that team, including left tackle Laremy Tunsil, receiver Laquon Treadwell, defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche and safety Tony Conner.
It’s a quartet of juniors from the 2013 recruiting class that was the genesis of the program’s transformation into an SEC threat. All four have NFL aspirations and are considered possible first-round picks.
Treadwell and Tunsil are both recovering from serious leg injuries last season, though Freeze expects both to be ready for the season’s first game on Sept. 5 against Tennessee-Martin.
The Rebels have quite a bit of experience at most positions with one notable exception — quarterback. Junior college transfer Chad Kelly, the nephew of NFL Hall of Famer Jim Kelly, and returning sophomores Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade are in a three-man race for the job.
“We just try to push each other every day — on and off the field,” Kelly said. “It’s a competition. That’s what we’re here for. We’re just doing the best we can every single day.”
Ole Miss will try to improve its running game to help whoever wins the quarterback job. The Rebels ranked near the bottom of the SEC last season with 155.5 yards rushing per game.
Jaylen Walton and Jordan Wilkins — the team’s top two backs from last season — both return.
Some things to watch for the Rebels this season:
QUARTERBACK BATTLE: Bo Wallace is gone after starting every game the past three seasons for Ole Miss. Now junior transfer Chad Kelly, along with returning sophomores Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade, are locked into a three-man battle for the starting job. Kelly has the pedigree — he’s the nephew of NFL Hall of Famer Jim Kelly — but coach Hugh Freeze said Buchanan had a slight edge in the race following spring practice. Freeze has said the competition could last well into September: “I don’t know that I can overstate the importance of our quarterback situation, us finding the guy that can hopefully make us efficient.”
MORE FROM NKEMDICHE: Defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche was the consensus top-rated recruit in the country in 2013 and he’s had two solid seasons for the Rebels. Ole Miss needs the 6-foot-4, 296-pound junior to turn into a superstar this fall. Nkemdiche made 35 tackles last season, including four for a loss and two sacks.
TREADWELL, TUNSIL RETURN: Receiver Laquon Treadwell and left tackle Laremy Tunsil are both expected to be fully healthy after each suffered a broken leg last season. Treadwell, a 6-foot-2, 210-pound junior, led the Rebels with 48 catches last season despite missing the season’s final four games. Tunsil, a 6-foot-5, 305-pound junior, has started for the Rebels since he was a freshman.
FIGURING OUT THE RUN GAME: Ole Miss struggled to run the ball last season, averaging just 4.2 yards per game, which ranked 11th in the 14-team league. The Rebels will try to improve with essentially the same offensive line and same group of running backs. Jaylen Walton led the team with 586 yards rushing and five touchdowns last season.
A GOOD START: Ole Miss has a relatively manageable schedule during the season’s first two months, with the obvious exception being a road game against Alabama on Sept. 19. The Rebels could use some momentum heading into November when they face a tough stretch that includes games against Auburn, Arkansas, LSU and Mississippi State.