OXFORD, Miss. (AP) Mississippi's football program might look like it's in disarray to outsiders.
It's easy to see why: The Rebels are ineligible for the Southeastern Conference title or a bowl game because of a self-imposed, one-year postseason ban. They also lost their coach in July after Hugh Freeze's stunning resignation.
But receiver A.J. Brown said it's a big mistake to say Ole Miss is finished before the season even starts.
''We're still here,'' Brown said. ''It's fine. They can doubt us. They can keep doubting us and keep telling what we're not going to do. And we'll just go prove them wrong - that's out mindset this season.''
Ole Miss was one of the nation's up-and-coming teams two years ago. The Rebels finished with a 10-3 record that ended with a Sugar Bowl win over Oklahoma State. Recruiting momentum was strong and Freeze looked like he had built a program that could be a consistent powerhouse in the SEC's Western Division.
But the news has been pretty dismal since that trip to New Orleans. The Rebels fell to a 5-7 record last season and a long-running NCAA investigation has taken its toll. Ole Miss self-imposed a one-year postseason ban during the spring and more punishment could be coming when the case is finally decided - likely later this fall.
That wasn't the toughest news of the offseason. Instead, it was the sudden resignation of Freeze.
He left because of a "pattern of personal misconduct" that was discovered after phone records revealed a phone call to an escort service in 2016.
Now Ole Miss has to try and bounce back with interim coach Matt Luke, who was elevated from his co-offensive coordinator position just hours after Freeze resigned.
''After all the adversity, we have a chance to be the most mentally tough team in the country,'' Luke said. ''They've been through so much and that's going to bring them together. That is your motivation. You're playing for the guy next to you.''
Ole Miss does have some talent returning, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. Sophomore quarterback Shea Patterson, who started three games last season, will take over the offense. He'll have a veteran offensive line in front of him and a group of young receivers, including Brown, D.K. Metcalf and Van Jefferson, who were impressive during the 2016 season.
Here are some things to watch for the Rebels this season:
KEY GAMES: Sept. 16 at California, Oct. 14 vs. Vanderbilt, Nov. 23 at Mississippi State.
SEASON OPENER: Ole Miss hosts South Alabama in the season's first week, opening with what should be a relatively easy game. But the Jaguars are no pushover - they upset Mississippi State in last year's opener. Ole Miss has a chance to have a good start to the season with games against South Alabama and UT Martin. The third game against California, which also has a first-year coach, is winnable as well.
A FEW GOOD LINEBACKERS: Ole Miss had the worst defense in the SEC last season, giving up 34 points per game. The main reason the Rebels struggled was terrible play from the linebackers. New defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff believes the group will be better this season, led by last year's leading tackler DeMarquis Gates.
AN OPEN CASE: The Rebels will try to keep the focus on football, but the school's long-running NCAA infractions case will almost certainly be a hot topic all season. Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork is optimistic that the case will wrap up sometime before the calendar hits 2018. More punishment could be coming for the school on top of the current one-year bowl ban, scholarship losses and recruiting restrictions.
PREDICTION: Ole Miss still has some reason for optimism, particularly on offense. If the Rebels can have a halfway decent defense, there's hope that the program could exceed expectations and finish in the middle of the SEC's Western Division. But there's no doubt Ole Miss has a lot going against it: It's hard to win with an interim coach and the NCAA infractions case could prove to be a huge distraction.
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