It's not every college football season that the Ole Miss Rebels enter November ranked in the top five and having already downed Alabama.
It's also not every year when a single play derails what could have been.
In arguably the most gripping game last season between Southeastern Conference teams, Ole Miss and Auburn had exchanged leads four times when the Rebels trailed 35-31 with 90 seconds left and had the ball at Auburn's 20-yard line. A pass from Bo Wallace to Laquon Treadwell appeared to be the go-ahead score at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, but the crowd quickly went silent when Tigers linebacker Kris Frost pulled Treadwell down from behind, causing an awkward tackle that resulted in the star receiver suffering a fractured tibia and a dislocated ankle.
As the immediate pain overcame Treadwell, he fumbled just short of the goal line. The Tigers recovered to preserve a hard-fought victory.
"The margin between winning and losing is so small in this conference," Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said on a recent conference call. "There was so much riding on that game with us being No. 3 and No. 4 in the BCS poll, and so much was made of that. For it to end that way — I had never been a part of that kind of gut-wrenching end, and it sure took a lot out of us.
"I'm not sure if we were the same the next week, and that's part of our journey here."
Ole Miss wasn't the same after the Auburn game. The Rebels claimed the Egg Bowl for just the second time in six seasons with a 31-17 win, which dashed Mississippi State's national-title hopes, but that occurred between a 30-0 loss at Arkansas and a 42-3 loss to TCU in the Peach Bowl.
The Rebels have improved from 7-6 to 8-5 to 9-4 in Freeze's first three seasons, and there are plenty of reasons for continued growth in 2015. Ole Miss may have more top-end talent than any team in the country, with Treadwell, offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche and safety Tony Conner already receiving first-round NFL draft projections should the four 2013 signees elect to forgo their final seasons.
Longtime ESPN analyst Mel Kiper has Tunsil No. 2 and Nkemdiche No. 4 on his early draft board for 2016.
"We're like everybody else," Freeze said. "We're optimistic because of the returning players we have and the work we got done in the spring, but we wish we would have had a healthier unit to work with in the offensive line."
Tunsil, who fractured his fibula in the bowl game, is healing nicely according to Freeze, and Treadwell is expected to be full speed when preseason camp starts. Freeze said Treadwell will participate in contact work, though it will be closely guarded.
Ole Miss has not played in the SEC title game since its inception in 1992 and has not won the league since 1963. To alter those streaks, the Rebels must develop a quality quarterback who can guide the surrounding talent.
Ryan Buchanan exited spring as the slight leader over DeVante Kincade and Chad Kelly, who began his career at Clemson before playing last fall at East Mississippi Community College. The nephew of former Buffalo Bills great Jim Kelly experienced his share of off-the-field problems before arriving in Oxford, but Freeze likes what he's seen to this point.
"He's actually a little bit ahead of where I thought he would be," Freeze said. "Our other kids have had two years with us, and Chad has had 15 days. I was impressed with his football IQ and the way he came in and studied things. I thought he picked things up nicely and had some really good practices.
"We're searching for a consistency with him and the others. The most consistent one is going to be the guy."
Auburn announced Tuesday afternoon that the Tigers will open their 2019 season against Oregon at the Cowboys Classic in the Dallas suburb of Arlington. The game will pit the two teams that played for the BCS championship after the 2010 season, which Auburn won 22-19.
Bulldogs land Walston
Georgia picked up its 12th commitment for its 2016 signing class Thursday, receiving a nonbinding pledge from Garrett Walston of Wilmington, N.C. The 6-foot-4, 225-pounder is rated the No. 29 tight end nationally by Rivals.com and No. 17 by 247Sports.com.
Walston also had early scholarship offers from North Carolina, N.C. State and Virginia Tech, according to Rivals.
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.