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Is Tennessee Following the Ole Miss Model?

As the Year 2 Vols face the Year 3 Rebels, we look at the similarities and differences in a pair of difficult rebuilds.

Joe Murphy

The most obvious comparison between Tennessee and Ole Miss in 2014 is in recruiting, which was until two weeks ago the most celebrated point of the rebuilding efforts on both campuses.  In the Class of 2013 recruiting cycle you or someone you know had some form of the, "Ole Miss has to be cheating, right?" conversation, the surest sign your program is headed back to the top in the SEC.  It's the low hanging fruit when a program goes from 47th to 8th in 247's composite rankings, especially when they do so on the strength of four five-stars.  So, likewise, in the Class of 2014 recruiting cycle, when Tennessee went from Derek Dooley to a top five recruiting class, someone probably asked you, loyal Vol fan, what brand of mischief the Vols were engaged in.

SB Nation's Bill Connelly made the comparison back in July in his Tennessee team preview, calling the 2013 Vols, "Ole Miss without the breakthrough."  I would argue there's more room for breakthrough when you went 2-10 the year before your new coach showed up and played only four Top 20 teams in Year One instead of the seven Butch Jones faced last season.

Then this week, Freeze himself made the comparison in great detail:

At the moment, this is certainly a comparison we'd be in favor of.

Backgrounds will never line up exactly, but Ole Miss is on their third head coach since Tommy Tuberville and then David Cutcliffe moved the program up the ladder.  Three years of Ed Orgeron and four years of Houston Nutt (who managed a pair of 9-4s in his first two seasons with many of Orgeron's players) left the Rebels at 2-10 in 2011.  From 2008-12 their recruiting classes ranked 32nd, 19th, 20th, 22nd, and 47th in the 247 Composite.

The Rebels also hired a guy who wasn't as big of a splash as the fanbase wanted at the time.

In Year One Freeze and the Rebels won all the games they were supposed to, including taking advantage of a soon-to-be-fired coach at Auburn and an interim at Arkansas.  They lost their first three games against ranked foes by an average of 27 points, but then went to #8 LSU and almost pulled it off, falling 41-35.  They also lost close games to Texas A&M (30-27) and Vanderbilt (27-26).

But in the finale, they beat #25 Mississippi State 41-24 in Oxford.  The Year One Vols beat a higher ranked South Carolina team by a lesser margin, but I would almost guarantee the Egg Bowl victory carried a lot more mileage because of the rivalry factor, something Butch Jones has been unable to take advantage of so far.  The win also launched Ole Miss to bowl eligibility, something the Vols missed out on with the loss to Vanderbilt last year; Ole Miss won the BBVA Compass Bowl to get to 7-6.  Then again, Year One Ole Miss wasn't playing freshman Joshua Dobbs at quarterback at the end of the season.

In Year Two the Rebels were the second team on the Mack Brown farewell bandwagon, knocking off the Longhorns in Austin 44-23 a week after they fell to BYU.  They were shutout 25-0 by #1 Alabama but then played two other good teams close, losing 30-22 at Auburn and 41-38 to Texas A&M.

So, like the Vols now, Year Two Ole Miss was 3-3 in October having been totally outclassed once and then eating a pair of agonizing losses.  They had the advantage of an extra early meaningful game against a team in a downward spiral, which the Vols could have in a couple weeks if South Carolina can't get it turned around against Auburn.

The payoff came against #6 LSU in the season's seventh game, with Ole Miss winning at home 27-24.  The Egg Bowl win the year before meant something, but this was the elite/rival combo.  Nothing is worth more to a starving fanbase.

Year Two Ole Miss then beat three bad teams in a row to get to 7-3 and ranked #24.  But they lost another close game to #8 Missouri, then lost the Egg Bowl in overtime to finish 7-5.  The Rebels didn't follow the championship Year Two model, only improved their win-loss record by one, and went 1-3 against ranked teams, 1-4 if you count eventual #2 Auburn.

This is the much more likely trajectory when you've got so much room to grow and are using so many freshmen to get there.

Year Three Ole Miss, as you know, went from 18th to 11th in the polls by way of a 4-0 start against a soft-ish schedule.  But then they answered all the questions by beating Alabama.  And then they answered the new questions that come with such a win, the ones about letdowns we hope are still relevant this week.  They weren't in College Station by way of a 35-20 victory.

Year Three Ole Miss is 6-0 and ranked third in the nation.  Ten of its top eleven tacklers are juniors or seniors on what is by most accounts and statistics the best defense in the SEC and one of the best in the nation.  They are still young in spots - three of the top five pass catchers are sophomores - but freshmen making consistent, meaningful contributions are few and far between.  That's how it's supposed to be when the work gets done.

This is not to suggest Year Three Tennessee is going to compete for a national championship; despite similarities in pre-Butch/Freeze recruiting I think between the lines, literally and figuratively, the Vols had much more ground to make up after Derek Dooley than Houston Nutt, who once again was successful at the beginning of his tenure.

This is, however, to suggest that if the Vols are slow-playing the Ole Miss model, where we are right now is right on schedule, at a rate which has made the Rebels now and the Vols (hopefully) later ahead of schedule when compared to the rest of college football.

I think the loss to Florida is making us feel worse about the overall picture than we should.  Unfortunately, Ole Miss may present the steepest challenge left on a schedule that will still bring Alabama to Knoxville next week, simply because their greatest strength will be lined up nose to nose with our greatest weakness tomorrow.  But even if Tennessee doesn't look good in Oxford against yet another Top 5 opponent, there are enough similarities in the overall product at this stage of the game not to panic.

The Vols need a meaningful win to help people move past Florida and get back closer to the full buy-in with Butch Jones.  It may not come tomorrow night.  But Ole Miss has shown us in a similar situation you don't necessarily have to make a ton of tangible improvement in Year Two for things to pick up speed considerably in Year Three.

As long as Butch is at the helm the recruiting will continue to be a big part of that conversation.  I'll be curious to see what we've got for Ole Miss tomorrow night.  But even if it's not a "breakthrough", there are still plenty of signs, past present and future, that such a day is coming.  And there are still plenty of opportunities for such a moment in 2014.