Mississippi football coach Hugh Freeze speaks with a player during an NCAA college football practice prior to media day activities, Monday, Aug. 8, 2016, in Oxford, Miss. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Rogelio V. Solis
August 08, 2016

OXFORD, Miss. (AP) These should be grand times for Mississippi's football program.

And in many ways during Monday's first preseason practice, that's exactly how it felt. After all, the Rebels are coming off a 10-win season, including a Sugar Bowl victory over Oklahoma State, and are now a program that's viewed among the upper tier of the loaded Southeastern Conference.

Senior quarterback Chad Kelly, a longshot Heisman Trophy candidate, was zinging passes. Talented defensive linemen like Breeland Speaks and Marquis Haynes looked imposing during drills. At almost every position, the Rebels had the look and feel of an elite program.

''I really like the look of our team,'' Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said. ''I love our coaching staff. The chemistry and consistency that we've been able to maintain here speaks to our core values and our administration.''

But all is not well in Oxford. An ongoing four-year NCAA investigation continues to hover over the football program, leaving an unmistakable feeling of uneasiness. Is a postseason ban coming? A suspension for Freeze? Or is it just the loss of some scholarships and a few years of probation that the university already self-imposed?

Nobody knows. And until there's some clarity, the questions will continue.

Freeze is adamant that while the outside world might be concerned about the NCAA investigation, ''it hasn't stole our joy at all.''

Kelly said it's not even part of their world. ''You're better off not reading anything on Twitter or newspapers or TV because it seems like they always want to talk about it. For us, we've just got to focus on football.''

Freeze and Ole Miss have good reason to make sure the focus remains on the field. The Rebels have a hard September schedule, starting with a neutral site opener against Florida State on Sept. 5. They also have back-to-back home games against Alabama and Georgia.

''It's not hard to motivate our kids,'' Freeze said. ''They understand what's in front of them.''

Kelly's presence is maybe the top reason for why the Rebels are confident they can be a factor in the SEC's Western Division. He threw for more than 4,000 yards in 2015 while also running for 500 yards in his first full season as a starter.

There also are experienced receivers like Damore'ea Stringfellow and Quincy Adeboyejo, along with tight end Evan Engram. On defense, the Rebels return five starters and several backups that had significant playing time last season. Veteran defensive tackle Issac Gross returns after missing most of last season with a neck injury and will bring what Freeze called ''a breath of fresh air.''

Ole Miss officials, meanwhile, are trying to ease off-the-field concerns.

Athletic director Ross Bjork spent a sizable portion of his spring and summer addressing various fan groups. In some instances, the gatherings drew record crowds, with fans still on a high after the Sugar Bowl win and back-to-back victories over mighty Alabama.

Bjork said he could sense the optimism, but also felt the concern about the NCAA's shadow.

Ole Miss has already received a Notice of Allegations from the NCAA, which includes 13 violations for the football program. The school released its response in May, but the case is in limbo while the school investigates more allegations involving former left tackle Laremy Tunsil.

''The key that's very important is saying, look, we're not going anywhere. We're building a program to last,'' Bjork said in July. ''We're not a one-hit wonder. We're not just the last four years, we're really building for the next 40 years.

''So I think that's how you have to approach it - long-term success can happen. (The NCAA investigation) is a challenge. It's a bump in the road, but we're going to get through it and we're going to continue to build the program the right way.''

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AP college football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org

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