- With the scandal of an NCAA investigation and the possibility of significant penalties, Ole Miss will face an uphill battle to land top recruits.
Most college football head coaches use National Signing Day press conferences to lavish praise on every member of their incoming recruiting classes. These addresses typically are uninteresting, filled with clichés and include references to gauzy qualities like grit and leadership and culture fit, as well as the futility of star ratings. This year, however, one prominent SEC coach veered off script with pointed remarks that were unusual in their candor. “We’ve suffered penalties,” Ole Miss’s Hugh Freeze said. “And this recruiting class, it was a penalty to be under the cloud we’re under.”
It was a markedly different tone from the one Freeze struck the week before signing day four years ago. In a Feb. 1, 2013, tweet that continues to haunt him to this day, Freeze sought to defend the integrity of his program’s recruiting practices by inviting critics to inform the Rebels’ compliance department about any facts they had regarding violations of NCAA bylaws. During the period between that social media post and Freeze’s 2017 NSD speech, Ole Miss reached two New Year’s Six Bowls, beat Alabama twice and climbed as high as No. 3 in the AP Top 25 poll.
The fuel for that run of success was blue-chip talent recruited by Freeze and his staff, including a loaded 2013 class featuring a quartet of five-star prospects, three of whom went on to become first-round NFL draft picks (offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, wide receiver Laquon Treadwell and defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche). But the Rebels’ ability to continue to attract top-end high school players is increasingly in doubt, as Ole Miss braces for heavy sanctions as punishment for a raft of violations. The Rebels announced last week that they would self-impose a postseason ban for 2017 and revealed eight new allegations from the NCAA, the most serious of which is the dreaded lack of institutional control charge.
The announcement came less than a year after Ole Miss, in a pre-emptive move following the receipt of its initial Notice of Allegations in January 2016, self-imposed other penalties, among them double-digit scholarship reductions and a decrease in unofficial visits. Even with the postseason ban in place for 2017, Ole Miss could face more sanctions after meeting with the governing body’s Committee on Infractions. But that won’t happen until the program issues an official response to the amended NOA, followed by a case summary from the NCAA. So it’ll be a while before it all gets sorted out.
As this convoluted process unfolds, the Rebels will try to convince coveted recruits that their best option is to spend four years in Oxford, rather than, say, Tuscaloosa, Knoxville, Gainesville or some other city a Power 5 program outside the SEC calls home. This won’t be easy. The scandal already has severely damaged the Rebels’ recruiting efforts, as Freeze alluded to on signing day. Ole Miss’s 2017 class checked in 29th nationally and 11th in the SEC, its lowest rankings in those categories since Freeze’s first class in 2012 (which he signed only a couple of months after being hired from Arkansas State).
The Rebels were forced to settle for B-level prospects after watching a host of esteemed targets spurn them in favor of other programs. Stud in-state running back Cam Akers chose Florida State, talented in-state linebacker Willie Gay decommitted from Ole Miss last October before opting for Mississippi State on signing day and five-star Episcopal (Texas) offensive tackle Walker Little, whose brother and sister attend Ole Miss, signed with Stanford. Only one of the Magnolia State’s top 12 recruits (four-star receiver D.D. Bowie), according to Scout.com, picked Ole Miss in 2017, compared to five of the top 12 in 2016.
Rival staffs were able to use the ongoing scandal as a form of negative recruiting against the Rebels for 2017 prospects. Ole Miss has a bit more clarity about its future now that it knows the charges against it, but the Rebels will be largely operating in the dark until the NCAA issues its punishment for the program after the COI meeting. The possibility of a crippling set of penalties no doubt will hinder Ole Miss’s 2018 recruiting. While it’s still very early in the cycle, the Rebels count zero verbal commitments in 2018, and their path to compiling a strong class is nebulous.
Prospects will be wary of committing to spend four years at Ole Miss until they know the sanctions the program will receive over the scandal. And even if the Rebels can convince players to commit in the next few months, those recruits may end up jumping ship after Ole Miss learns its fate from the NCAA. The Rebels can hunt for under-the-radar gems while at the same time keeping tabs on blue-chippers on their radar, but ultimately they may have to work quickly to piece together the bulk of their class late in the cycle, after the NCAA renders a verdict on the penalties.
Ole Miss definitely can help itself recruiting-wise by improving on last season’s 5–7 record, the worst of Freeze’s five-year tenure. Yet that will be difficult in an SEC West with three teams ranked in the top 14 of SI.com’s early top 25 (Alabama, LSU and Auburn). It won’t help that the Rebels face the Crimson Tide and Tigers on the road. Plus, while transfer speculation is probably premature, there’s a chance Ole Miss could suffer some defections if the NCAA extends the Rebels' postseason ban beyond 2017. The NCAA could allow players to change schools without sitting out a year, an arrangement that facilitated the thinning of Penn State’s two-deep after the Nittany Lions were hit with major sanctions in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal.
For now, coaches from other programs can continue to use the looming threat of a crushing blow from the NCAA to persuade prospects that they shouldn’t seriously consider Ole Miss. The Rebels can try to counter that strategy by claiming that they at least have a vague timeline for the end of the case and that they’re on the road to putting this whole thing behind them.
But there’s another complicating factor. It’s far from clear, despite the support Ole Miss higher-ups sought to project with the video announcing the postseason ban, that Freeze will survive this mess, particularly given the new NCAA penalty structure that places more responsibility on head coaches to monitor their staff’s behavior. A leadership vacuum could give recruits even more pause before signing on to a future with the Rebels.
This is a difficult time for a program that enjoyed such a rapid ascent to prominence under the guidance of a coach whose own meteoric rise lent Ole Miss a certain narrative allure. But this scandal raises the prospect that the Rebels won’t achieve the sustainability at the Power 5 summit that felt within reach when Chad Kelly was carving up the Crimson Tide secondary at Bryant-Denny Stadium in September 2015. Ole Miss won’t receive much sympathy outside of Oxford for the “cloud” Freeze mentioned on signing day last month, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t accurately describing the Rebels’ current state of affairs.