By: Eric SanInocencio
SEC Digital Network
Birmingham, Ala. -- In any other year, in any other conference, what Hugh Freeze has done at Ole Miss would be a much bigger deal.
After guiding the Rebels to a 7-6 campaign, complete with a win 38-17 over Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl, Freeze’s first year in Oxford would likely have been Coach of the Year worthy. Considering what was expected of the Rebels coming into the season, the accomplishments on the field have been truly impressive.
Don't remember the forecast for Ole Miss football back in July? I'll refresh your memory.
On the preseason Media Days All-SEC team, Ole Miss was picked to finish last in the Western Division. They received fewer points than any other team in the SEC from the league's media members, and had just one player (Charles Sawyer) make any of the three preseason All-SEC squads. In fact, Sawyer only tied for the spot, but since the league office doesn't break ties he made the squad.
The SEC's coaches weren't high on the Rebels either. In their rankings of the top returning players going into the 2012 season, only two athletes (Sawyer, Tyler Campbell) were recognized. Ole Miss was one of only three teams in the SEC not to have a first team player, meaning Freeze's work would be done with athletes not thought of as elite conference talent.
You can't fault the media and coaches for feeling this way, seeing as how difficult 2010 and 2011 were for the Rebel program. During that two-year span Ole Miss went 6-18 overall and just 1-15 in conference play. The Rebels hadn't won an SEC game since October 2010.
Yet, despite the perceived limitations, Freeze’s goal was simple. He wanted change the image of Ole Miss football.
In his opening remarks at SEC Media Days, Freeze, who referred to himself as a "realist", explained what he hoped to accomplish going forward. "Our program is in a spot that none of us are happy with," Freeze said. "I get that. I'm very, very anxious about starting the process and the journey to get us out of being where we are to back to where it's been in years past."
With those words he charted a course for his Rebels, emphasizing the importance of perception. Nearly five months later, the bad memories of 2011 are gone, replaced by optimism for 2013.
The optimism in Oxford is for good reason. Ole Miss ended its winless SEC streak in 2012, capturing three victories in league play. It also put an end to a three-year losing streak against in-state rival Mississippi State. In an exciting culmination to the regular season, that 41-24 win over the Bulldogs also made the Rebels bowl-eligible.
That brings us to the present, with "legions" of Rebel fans celebrating their victory over Pittsburgh here in Birmingham. Ole Miss played the type of up-tempo offense Freeze is known for, accumulating yards and points seemingly at will against the Panthers. They averaged nearly five yards per play, and had 390 yards of total offense. Freeze and company finished with the program’s first winning season since 2009.
But, in what has been a theme for Ole Miss this season, this win will likely go largely unnoticed outside of Oxford. Sandwiched in between Texas A&M's decimation of Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl Friday night and Alabama's upcoming BCS National Championship Game against Notre Dame on Monday, the window for the Rebels to gain national attention is short. This brings me back to Freeze, whose 7-6 season has gone under the radar in college football.
Freeze's accomplishments were lost in the shuffle of perhaps the best year in SEC football history. The conference is playing in its seventh straight title game (Alabama), and at one point the league had six of the top nine teams in the Bowl Championship Series standings. Five SEC teams will finish the season with 11 wins, while this year's SEC Championship Game between Alabama and Georgia is being lauded as the best ever played. Not to mention Vanderbilt reached nine wins for the first time since 1915.
That doesn't diminish what Freeze did in the least; it is just a reminder that in a league that celebrates National Championships; sometimes 7-6 doesn't get the respect it deserves.
Hugh Freeze and Ole Miss deserve all of our respect today. Even if by Monday night our focus is in Miami.