OXFORD, Miss. — Hugh Freeze is working his turnaround magic again — this time in the Southeastern Conference.
The unlikely major college head coach, who was leading a high school program less than a decade ago and cobbled together the bulk of his offense by watching college games on his couch, has Mississippi competitive in the SEC and just one win from bowl eligibility.
Ole Miss (5-3, 2-2 SEC) will be about a two-touchdown underdog when it visits No. 7 Georgia (7-1, 5-1) today, but both sides expect the game to be competitive. That’s hard to believe considering the Rebels were in the midst of an embarrassing 16-game SEC losing streak less than a month ago.
“What I see is a team that has a brand new head coach that’s brought a lot of energy to the program,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “A lot of times, you just never know how close you are to winning and breaking through and having success.”
Ole Miss was closer than many thought.
The Rebels won their first SEC game in more than two years against Auburn on Oct. 13 and then got a road win against Arkansas last Saturday. With each successful weekend, the Rebels’ confidence has grown, and it’s Freeze’s unmistakable yet subtle fingerprints that have provided the biggest difference.
The low-key Freeze might be the least surprised person about the turnaround. After all, he’s done this before.
The 43-year-old had already engineered remarkable one-year turnarounds at NAIA-level Lambuth (Tenn.) and at Arkansas State before accepting the Ole Miss job.
But both those revivals were done in relative obscurity. This one has been done in the harsh glare that comes with coaching in the nation’s best college football conference.
It hasn’t fazed him one bit.
The scary part for opponents? The Rebels are just now starting to believe.
“I see confidence growing, but yet their demeanor has stayed workmanlike,” Freeze said. “And I think the best teams that I’ve coached have had that quality. You’re very confident, but it doesn’t hurt your work ethic and the way you go about your business.”
That’s not to say the Rebels still don’t have issues.
Quarterback Bo Wallace has been a huge upgrade at quarterback, but still makes too many mistakes, throwing nearly as many interceptions (9) as touchdowns (10). The defense is thin and undersized at several spots, and ranks in the bottom half of the SEC in most major categories.
But in more proof that football’s a mental game, simply gaining confidence has lifted the Rebels from league laughingstock to respected opponent.
Freeze’s roster consists of most of the same players who won just two games last season. They didn’t miraculously grow into 300-pound monsters or turn into speedsters overnight.
“There is no magic — the magic is in the effort,” Ole Miss offensive line coach Matt Luke said. “I think, number one, it’s that the players know (Freeze) cares about them and in turn, they want to perform for him and each other. He’s a genuine person. He’s not scared to take a hard line. If someone misses class, he sits them. There’s no wiggle room and kids respect that.”
Ole Miss junior cornerback Charles Sawyer said Freeze’s egalitarian system has been a welcome change.
“He holds everyone accountable, and I mean from the star players to the scout team,” Sawyer said. “When you have a scout team guy, a star offensive player and an assistant coach all held to the same standard, it really produces a lot of respect.”
Freeze shrugs when asked how he builds that quick rapport with his players.
“It’s the only way I know how to coach,” Freeze said. “That’s who I am.”
Freeze’s wide-open offense has also been a boost for the Rebels.
Unlike many major college coaches, who count a long list of legends as their mentors, Freeze developed most of his philosophy when he was a high school coach in Memphis, Tenn. He would comb through taped college games and write down plays that appealed to him in a notebook.
Some of it was Oklahoma and some of it was Oregon. He gained respect for guys like Gus Malzahn and Kevin Sumlin in the process, coaches known for their ability to put points on the board in bunches.
Ten years later, he’s turned those plays into a coherent offense.
Can it work in the SEC? It’s early, but it certainly appears so.
“Everything that’s going on now, it’s not a surprise,” Sawyer said. “I felt this team was going to be different. Now that it’s actually happening, you’re not surprised, you’re just appreciative.”