Last season: 10-3 (6-2 SEC)
Opener: Sept. 5 vs. Florida State in Orlando (8 p.m. on ESPN)
Fun fact: Ole Miss posted its second-best SEC record (6-2) last season in 40 years, trailing only the 2003 Rebels (7-1) with Eli Manning at quarterback.
COMING MONDAY: Mississippi State
Chad Kelly of Ole Miss is the top statistical quarterback returning in the Southeastern Conference.
Kelly led the SEC last season with 310.9 yards per game and 31 passing touchdowns, and he freely claims he's the best in the league. Yet he doesn't stop there, because the nephew of former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly believes he's the best in college football.
"You have to feel that way," the 6-foot-2, 224-pound senior said this month at SEC media days in Hoover, Ala. "In order to have confidence in yourself and in your team, you have to think that you're the best. We have to think that we have the best team out there."
The Rebels certainly walked away from last year feeling confident, posting double-digit victories over LSU (38-17), Mississippi State (38-27) and Oklahoma State (48-20) to close out a 10-3 season.
The win over Oklahoma State was in the Sugar Bowl, which was the first appearance for Ole Miss in that game since Archie Manning was quarterback in 1969. Kelly threw for 302 yards and rushed for 73 in New Orleans, and the Rebels set a program record for points in a bowl, yards (554) and touchdowns (six).
"We were definitely clicking on all cylinders, and we had a couple of mental errors, otherwise we would have scored even more," Kelly said. "We got better as the game went on, for sure, and I'm excited to build off that game."
The closing chapters of Kelly's first full season in Oxford were filled with pleasantries, but it wasn't a joyous entrance. He signed with Clemson out of high school but was dismissed in spring 2014 for what Tigers coach Dabo Swinney described as "conduct detrimental to the team."
Kelly transferred to East Mississippi Community College, where he threw for 3,905 yards and 47 touchdowns and won a national championship, and he committed to Ole Miss. He arrived on egg shells, however, after getting arrested in Buffalo, his hometown, in December 2014 on charges of punching a bouncer and threatening to shoot into a bar.
Rebels coach Hugh Freeze accepted Kelly under certain conditions, and Kelly remembers the moment his wayward, off-the-field disposition changed.
"When my grandmother died," he said. "It was March 7 (2015), and that was probably the biggest event in my life that changed my life. I miss her dearly. She really opened up my eyes and taught me that not everything is given to you and that it can be taken away just like that."
Though he lost a member of his support group with his grandmother's death, Kelly continues to seek advice from his Hall of Fame uncle, who has been fighting cancer. Kelly talks to his uncle almost every day.
"He definitely inspires me to be great and to lead and to be a fighter and never give up," Kelly said. "He's my uncle and another extension of me, and I'm thankful to have an uncle like that who can help me on and off the field."
Kelly wasted no time proving his worth last season, totaling five touchdowns (four passing and one rushing) in the first half of his second game against Fresno State, which was a 73-21 Rebels rout. Ole Miss opened last season by crushing UT-Martin, but those who were questioning the Rebels through two easy weekends fell silent on the third Saturday, when Kelly threw for 341 yards and three touchdowns in a 43-37 upset win at Alabama.
It was just the second win ever for Ole Miss in Tuscaloosa.
For the Rebels to start out quickly again this season, they must do so with just three returning offensive starters — Kelly, tight end Evan Engram and receiver Quincy Adeboyejo — and five defensive starters. No program has a bigger opening jolt compared to a year ago, with the Rebels trading out UT-Martin for a date in Orlando against Florida State.
"When you lose a lot of talent like we did, if you have a proven quarterback like Chad behind center, you can build around a guy like that," Engram said. "He's been more vocal, and I feel like he's more comfortable."
Kelly will play this season without receiver Laquon Treadwell and left tackle Laremy Tunsil, who were first-round NFL selections in April. The Rebels lost all of their starting linemen from last year's team and currently are under an NCAA investigation, but Kelly's goal of being the best hasn't been shaken.
In fact, it's only been enhanced.
"You have to make the best out of the opportunity, because you only get to live it once," Kelly said. "You want to go out with a bang, and I want to be remembered as the greatest quarterback to ever play. We've had a lot of success, but the margin for error is so small.
"We're all anxious to get out there and get to work."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.