The 2011 season was certainly one to forget for Ole Miss. The Houston Nutt led Rebels finished that respective campaign win-less in the SEC, obtained a 2-10 overall record, and were outscored by a average of 16-points per game. Such under-performance led then Athletic Director, Pete Boone, to relieve Houston Nutt of his head coaching duties with three games remaining in the season. After coaching positions were vacated and the resulting dust settled at season’s end, Ole Miss hired a little known coach out of the Sun Belt Conference by the name of Hugh Freeze. By most accounts, this wasn’t lauded as a home run hire. Understandable when a coach, who only had one year of FBS head coaching experience, entered the nation’s premier conference. While many expected little out of Freeze, he outperformed all expectations. Not only did he salvage Ole Miss’ recruiting class with limited time (final Rivals rank 40th), he also led them to a 7-6 record after a blowout win over Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl.
Much like 2011’s Ole Miss Rebels, Kentucky had a season in which many would like to forget. Joker Phillips’ Wildcats also went win-less in the SEC, finished with a 2-10 overall record, and were outscored by an average of 13 points per contest. The lack of on field results led Athletic Director, Mitch Barnhart, to (thoughtfully) release Joker Phillips from his coaching responsibilities after an embarrassing home loss to Vanderbilt. Concluding 2012’s season, after many weeks of rumor and hysteria, the decision was finally made to hire Florida State Defensive Coordinator, Mark Stoops. While Stoops has yet to coach a single down for Kentucky, what he and his staff have accomplished thus far is nothing shot of miraculous. After yesterday’s signing day festivities, Stoops and Co. have done the improbable, they brought a top-30 class to Kentucky. This after many services placed the Cats 50th or below just weeks ago. The similarities between last year’s Mississippi squad and this season’s Kentucky team are incredibly eerie; knowing this, 2013’s plan for Kentucky Football should be to emulate Mississippi, a goal which is surprisingly attainable.
Something that allowed Ole Miss to compete right away was Hugh Freeze’s balanced spread offense. In his single year at Arkansas State, the Red Wolves were not only difficult to stop because of the spread, but also because of their balanced play calling. ASU ran over 1,000 plays, doing so with near 50-50 pass/ran distribution (500 pass, 516 rush). That spread attack was nearly repeated in Oxford this season as the Rebels passed on 43% of plays and rushed 57% of the time. Clearly not the same balance, but this modified spread attack was able to keep elite opponents on their toes as the Rebels averaged 28 points per game in SEC play. Innovative offense is something Kentucky fans have been clamoring for, and our wishes have finally been granted. Last season, Neal Brown’s Texas Tech Red Raiders were outstanding at stretching defenses, passing 594 times while only rushing 399. The result: Texas Tech was among the nation’s elite offensive teams, scoring 37.5 points and averaging over 495 yards per game. It may take a year, or even two, but this type of offense will give Kentucky a serious advantage.
Of course, Ole Miss’ spread offense requires a talented Quarterback to run the show, and the Rebels received that with JUCO transfer, Bo Wallace. Sure, Wallace struggled initially, tossing 8 interceptions in his first five games, but after some work, he threw 22 touchdowns, completed 64% of his passes, and averaged over 8 yards per attempt last season. Additionally, his 9 rushing touchdowns gave opposing defenses something else to defend. It wasn’t always pretty, but Wallace’s maturation immediately helped guide the Rebels to respectability. The Quarterback is highly important in Neal Brown’s Air Raid as well, luckily he has multiple options to choose from in Max Smith, Patrick Towles, and Jalen Whitlow. Provided that one can emerge as front-runner, their maturation will be paramount in Kentucky’s successes, just like Wallace at Mississippi. Luckily we have the offense for rapid growth. If you’re unfamiliar, the simplicity of the Air Raid is where its beauty lies. This “simplicity” allows Quarterbacks to quickly adapt and succeed immediately. For proof, examine players like Tim Couch, Graham Harrell, and Geno Smith who all flourished under this style of offense. It’s a tall order, but if either Smith, Towles, or Whitlow attain even a fraction of Couch/Smith-like success, Kentucky would undoubtedly have one of the nation’s most improved offenses, much like Mississippi.
The turnaround Hugh Freeze brought the Rebels in his first season was incredible; not only did they win five more games than the previous season’s total, but they also landed a monster recruiting class the following year which included the nation’s top prospect. Likewise, things are looking up in Lexington; Stoops landed Kentucky’s best recruiting class in history and brought in an innovative offense to boot. However, keep in mind the type of improvement Ole Miss experienced is not typical, many programs take two, or even three years to trend upward after a 2-10 season. While it’s unlikely Kentucky will be able to replicate the exact results of Freeze’s Rebels, that’s perfectly acceptable. Often times in football, significant and noticeable improvements occur with only a slight increase in record. But, even though the odds are stacked against Kentucky, the goal is simple; be like Ole Miss, the most improved team in college football. Judging from the level of incoming talent and innovative schemes on both sides of the ball, Stoops and his staff are certainly aiming to do just that.