Alabama and Texas A&M aren't the only Southeastern Conference West Division football programs experiencing wintertime excitement following resounding bowl victories.
Between Texas A&M's rout of Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl and the Crimson Tide's trampling of Notre Dame in the BCS championship earlier this month, the Ole Miss Rebels capped a surprising 7-6 season with a 38-17 drubbing of Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl. Ole Miss clinched bowl eligibility with a 41-24 defeat of Mississippi State, ending a three-year losing streak in the Egg Bowl series.
"Our guys really chose to buy in and decided we can determine who we want to be," Rebels coach Hugh Freeze said after an inaugural season that shattered the most optimistic expectations. "We don't have to have someone else determine that. I didn't know if we could go to a bowl or not, but I knew we could attack each week as an individual challenge and game."
The Rebels, who went 2-10 in Houston Nutt's final two seasons and entered 2012 on a 14-game losing streak within the SEC, are following up their turnaround with a likely top-10 signing class.
Ole Miss recently received a commitment from receiver Laquon Treadwell (6-foot-3, 198 pounds) of Crete, Ill., who is rated by Rivals.com as the No. 5 prospect nationally. The Rebels also are the team to beat for defensive end Robert Nkemdiche (6-5, 260) of Loganville, Ga., the country's No. 1 prospect.
That's two potential top-five prospects for a program that didn't land any top-20 prospects in the previous 11 years of Internet service rankings.
"Ole Miss just has an unbelievable amount of energy right now," Scout.com analyst Jamie Newberg said. "This could be the best class I've seen them put together in 20 years."
The Rebels welcomed eight early enrollees this past week, a list headlined by the return of receiver Nickolas Brassell, who signed in 2011 but left school last spring after failing to pass enough hours. Brassell had 24 receptions for 336 yards and two touchdowns as an Ole Miss freshman, and he also tallied 14 tackles and five breakups at cornerback and had an 81-yard punt return for a touchdown against Georgia.
Brassell became the first Ole Miss player to start both ways since 1988, and he is back at Oxford after amassing 48 receptions for 663 yards and six touchdowns this past season at East Mississippi Community College. He will reunite this spring with 2011 signing mate Donte Moncreif, who compiled 979 yards and 10 touchdowns on 66 catches this past season as a Rebels sophomore.
Throw in the expected arrival of Treadwell this summer, and Ole Miss could challenge Alabama and Texas A&M for the most dangerous receiving corps in the league.
"I wanted to be a part of something special," Treadwell told reporters after his announcement. "The program is on the rise with the new coaching staff. Coach Freeze is changing the culture, and I want to be a part of changing the Rebel culture.
"With us, they cannot double-team. I thought a lot about that, too."
Treadwell, who racked up 63 receptions for 1,450 yards and 23 touchdowns in leading Crete-Monee High to the Illinois 6A state championship, has a connection to Ole Miss. Cornerback Anthony Standifer, who was a Rebels freshman this past season, played at Crete-Monee.
The tie-in Ole Miss has with Nkemdiche is even stronger. Older brother Denzel Nkemdiche led the Rebels with 82 tackles this past season as a redshirt freshman linebacker, and he already us a top spokesman for the program and its success under Freeze.
"Coach Freeze came in when we needed something new," the elder Nkemdiche said. "We wanted something new. We wanted something different. We wanted to win. He came in and did it."
Freeze and the Rebels would certainly love a second Nkemdiche, which would all but lock up the first top-10 class since team rankings began en masse in 2002. Ole Miss has averaged a Rivals.com team ranking of 28.5. Its 2006 class was headlined by quarterback Brent Schaeffer, defensive tackle Jerrell Powe and defensive end Kentrell Lockett finishing 15th.