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Facing NCAA limbo, Hugh Freeze and Ole Miss should still be can't-miss TV this fall

Thanks to its self-imposed bowl ban, the only SEC team that's beaten Alabama in the last three years now pledges to play with nothing to lose.

HOOVER, Ala. — Of course Hugh Freeze wasn’t going to say much about the lawsuit. A day after former Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt accused the school—and Freeze specifically—of running a smear campaign against him to save the 2016 recruiting class, Freeze could do neither his school nor himself any favors by lashing out at Nutt. So when Freeze wasn’t delivering a 16-minute filibuster that finally petered out after a breakdown of the long snapper competition, he stayed vague Thursday at SEC Media Days.

“I thought the timing,” Freeze said, “was kind of questionable.”

The timing was entirely intentional. Nutt’s attorneys timed the filing of his federal lawsuit for maximum damage to Ole Miss, and they succeeded if only because they made Thursday even weirder than it already would have been for Freeze. (That Houston Nutt used phone logs obtained through an open records request to his advantage might be the most SEC of all ironies.) Of the questions Freeze answered, perhaps 10% related to actual football. The Nutt suit was the basis for some, but most related to another thing Freeze isn’t going to talk about in great detail: the five-year-old NCAA inquiry into the Ole Miss program.

Freeze said the Rebels haven’t set a date for their hearing before the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions, but late summer or early fall is the target. Based on correspondence with the NCAA released by North Carolina, we already know the committee plans to convene in mid-August to hear North Carolina’s case. The membership of the panel will differ slightly for the Ole Miss case—committee chair and SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, for example, isn’t allowed to hear cases involving his league’s schools—but this seems like a decent guideline for extrapolating when the Rebels will get their day in the NCAA’s version of court.

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The timetable will make for a fascinating season for Ole Miss. Because the committee isn’t likely to release its decision until November or later, Ole Miss probably won’t have to make any tough decisions regarding Freeze this season. The NCAA’s head coach responsibility legislation gives the committee the ability to suspend Freeze, but the season could be over before the ruling comes down. Meanwhile, Ole Miss already has banned itself from a bowl game this season as part of a pre-emptive strike—which also includes scholarship reductions over a period of years—intended to mitigate any potential punishment. The Ole Miss administration seems willing to ride or die with Freeze, but let’s not forget that Ohio State’s administration stood behind Jim Tressel until it didn’t. That’s how these things work. The timing here should allow Ole Miss and Freeze to make any decisions regarding the future* with the maximum length of time between games.

*Even if the sanctions are especially harsh, I’m still waiting to hear a good reason why Ole Miss should part ways with Freeze. A suspension of half a season or more might provide that reason, but without that, how does changing coaches satisfy anyone other than the NCAA and rivals who want Freeze gone? If it will take four or five years to dig out from under the sanctions either way, why not dig out with the guy who has proven he can beat Alabama?

So what does this mean for the Rebels on the field this season? It means they’ll probably play YOLO ball, and it means you’ll probably find yourself getting sucked into multiple Ole Miss games this season. Consider this equation.

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Exciting young QB (Shea Patterson) + Deep WR corps + Suspect defense + Nothing to lose = Shootouts aplenty

Of course you want to watch that.

Remember, this is the only program in the SEC that has beaten Alabama in the past three seasons. (The Rebels did it in 2014 and ’15 and forced the Crimson Tide to win a 48–43 heart attack last year.) The NCAA investigation finally took its toll on the Rebels’ recruiting in the ’17 cycle, but Ole Miss won’t feel the impact of that on the field until a year from now. That confluence of circumstances could make Ole Miss one of the nation’s most interesting teams. Opposing defensive coordinators will have to adjust their playcalling, because the Rebels are going to go for a lot of fourth-and-ones this season. “If you can steal an extra possession because it’s fourth-and-one at the plus-40 or the 50, I’m probably going to have to do it,” Freeze said.

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Freeze might make the go-for-it call, but the actual play call will come from new offensive coordinator Phil Longo. Freeze ran the Rebels’ offense his first five seasons, but he said he will turn over those responsibilities to Longo this year. “It's very difficult to be the head coach and the CEO and run an offense,” Freeze said. “There are so many moving parts and tentacles.” This sounds like language aimed at the Committee on Infractions to show that Freeze intends to be more vigilant in terms of compliance, but if it’s true, Freeze likely will be unhappier for it. Instead of being able to disappear into football as he awaits his NCAA fate, he’ll be dealing with minutiae while someone else calls the plays. This probably won’t cause Ole Miss or Freeze to receive a lighter sentence, either. The committee made clear in the Louisville case that the head coach is responsible for everything on his watch, so this change would come too late to help in this case. But if Freeze continues as the coach after the sanctions are handed down, it might help him avoid another NCAA probe.

It chafes Freeze when he hears the Rebels have nothing to play for this season because they’ve banned themselves from a bowl game. Are the experiences somehow more poignant if a season ends in the Music City Bowl? “Whether they like us, whether they don’t like us, whether they believe in us, whether they don’t believe in us, whatever their choice is, we have an opportunity to model for a lot of people the proper way to handle a difficult circumstance by choosing to see how blessed you are with the things you still have,” Freeze said. “Our young men are still blessed.” The bottom line is this: If this team beats Alabama or LSU under these circumstances, it will be remembered.

Freeze has talked to Jim Grobe—who took over at Baylor after the firing of Art Briles in May 2016—about coaching a team under a cloud. Freeze said Terry Bowden, who coached a postseason-ineligible Auburn team to an 11–0 record in 1993, has reached out as well. Freeze intends to get in touch with Bowden and others who can offer advice for handling a team in this situation.

After that, Freeze will coach his team and wait. He seems to finally have figured out that nothing he says or does will change anyone’s opinion of him. Those who love him will love him, and those who think he’s a cheater will think he’s a cheater. Freeze will do what he will do. Then the Committee on Infractions will do what it will do. Then Ole Miss will do what it will do. How it all works out remains anyone’s guess.