Ole Miss has people talking.
It has a fan base buzzing after a resurgent first season under coach Hugh Freeze, it has recruitniks clamoring about a stunning recruiting class -- and the makings of another for 2014 -- and it has an anonymous SEC coach taking a shot at its quarterback.
The Rebels are a hot topic, and for each conversation they have an answer, beginning with the lofty expectations.
During a stop on the team's annual caravan, Freeze urged the fans and alumni in attendance to be realistic about the state of the program after going from 2-10 in 2011 to 7-6 a year ago, capped by a win over Pitt in the Compass Bowl.
"If you're in a relationship or business or whatever you're in, if you're expectations are unreal, the result is going to be frustration. That's not good for anyone," Freeze said by phone. "My challenge to them was to not expect a lot out of us, but maintain the positive enthusiasm and energy we have right now. We're on a journey. It is not going to be an overnight success. It won't happen."
But to be fair, there are plenty of reasons for optimism in Oxford, which saw the Rebels win just six games total in the two years before Freeze's arrival.
Ole Miss will enter the fall with 19 returning starters, the most of any SEC team, including quarterback Bo Wallace, dynamic wide receiver Donte Moncrief and four offensive linemen who have combined for 82 starts.
While the Rebels went 3-5 in SEC play last season, finishing fifth in the West, three of those losses came by six points or less. They were up 35-28 at LSU with 11 minutes to play in a six-point loss, led Texas A&M 27-17 in the fourth quarter only to lose by three and held a 26-20 advantage on Vanderbilt but a touchdown in the final minute resulted in a one-point defeat.
Oh, and then there's the recruiting coup Freeze and his staff pulled on National Signing Day.
Robert Nkemdiche, the nation's No. 1 player out of Grayson High School (Loganville, Ga.) stood before a podium with cameras rolling. The 6-foot-4, 282-pound defensive end made his announcement before pulling on a Rebels hat, removed his letterman jacket to reveal Ole Miss suspenders underneath and shared a hug with his brother and new teammate, linebacker Denzel.
ESPN's captured the eruption in the Ole Miss offices, putting an exclamation point on a class that included four five-star prospects, including safety Antonio Conner, offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil and wide receiver Laquon Treadwell.
"We were definitely excited. I think all of us woke up to watch all of the announcements," said Wallace, a junior. "But I think it was more for the fan base. We knew what we had here and we know that we have players and to add those guys is only going to help us. I think more than us for being excited, it was good for the fan base to see what coach Freeze is doing here and where he's trying to take the program."
The class raised eyebrows and had some questioned Freeze's recruiting tactics. He didn't take it lightly, firing off the following tweet to challenge anyone who doubted the Rebels' work:
"If you have facts about a violation, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org," Freeze tweeted. "If not, please do not slander these young men or insult their family."
There has been no red flags, no concrete evidence of any violations and the Rebels are poised to see the fruits of their recruiting labors immediately, in particular with Nkemdiche.
While the defense returns end C.J. Johnson --who is expected to be available after breaking his leg in the spring -- lost four of its six linemen who had at least four tackles for loss last season. Phil Steele, he of the annual 300-plus page preseason bible, has Nkemdiche on his all-SEC third-team defense.
But like with the hype surrounding his team, Freeze is advising caution as the heralded rookie adjusts to life on campus and to the Rebels' playbook.
"You're never quite sure how they're going to respond," he said. "But I know physically he's as talented as I've seen coming out of high school and he has a tremendous work ethic and I've been very proud of the way he's working and we expect him to contribute."
Freeze believes Ole Miss is another strong recruiting class away from "having a depth chart that looks like an SEC team," but they've laid the groundwork for another strong February. The Rebels are currently 17th in Scout.com's team rankings with a class that features three four-star players, led by 6-5, 295-pound offensive guard Andy Bauer, who will graduate from De Smet (St. Louis) in December and enroll at Ole Miss in January.
As for the hear and now, Freeze is praying.
He's not doing it because of a daunting schedule that includes four of the first five games or the road or a brutal September-October stretch that goes at Texas, at Alabama, at Auburn and home vs. Texas A&M and LSU, but for the same luck his Rebels had last season.
They played the same five offensive linemen and the same three wide receivers the entire year, a blessing of durability that Freeze knows can't be expected to happen again.
"I've seen what injuries do to you, especially if you don't have the SEC depth chart," he said. "We've got to be smart how we practice. We're going to take care of the positions that we're thin at and hopefully be able to get the maximum out of the kids that we're trying to develop, even the young ones."
That includes a quarterback that at times last season looked like a budding star, and at others was wildly erratic.
Wallace, who played for Freeze at Arkansas State before transferring, ranked fifth in the SEC in total offense as a sophomore (260.3) in throwing for 2,994 yards and 22 scores and rushing for another eight touchdowns and 390 yards.
But Wallace also threw for 17 interceptions, the most of any SEC QB and a total only equaled by one player in the top 100 in passing in FBS last year, North Carolina State's Mike Glennon. That the Rebels were still the most efficient red zone team in the conference, converting on 41 of their 45 attempts (91 percent), despite those miscues makes it all the more intriguing what they could do if Wallace can cut down on his picks.
"I think as long as I play the way I did last year and not having those turnover numbers (just) those good numbers, the touchdowns, the passing yards, those are going to come," he said. "My main focus is getting those turnovers down because you're not going to win a lot of games in this conference turning the ball over like that."
Any signs of improvement will have to wait as Wallace underwent surgery on his throwing shoulder in January and missed spring practice. He's currently six weeks not his rehab, which largely entails tossing a football into a net and expects to be ready for fall camp, though he did say "I'm throwing the ball better right now then I was at the end of the year."
He's been limited on the field, but it hasn't stopped Wallace from going on the offensive. He took a card from his coach's playbook, taking to Twitter to call out an anonymous SEC coach who -- though which publicationWeb site had the quote was unclear -- criticized his ability.
"Reading that, it kind of ticked me off," Wallace said. "I think if you're going to say something like that, go on record about it. Don't say it anonymously. It wasn't that he called me a below average SEC quarterback, it was more that he did it anonymously that ticked me off."
At least there's no denying the Rebels' on-field leader has fire, though Freeze said when he heard of the tweet he called Wallace and said "'Dude, what are you doing?' (But) I guess there's a part of you that appreciates the competitive side of him."
Wallace, fire and all, is among the pieces in place that could make Ole Miss among the biggest surprise of the season. But Freeze, a part of Houston Nutt's staff that brought in the players behind nine-win seasons in '08 and '09, knows this is a process.
It's been 50 years since the Rebels won the last of their six SEC titles and 51 since the last of three national championships.
"I don't know that in this league that's there's any of us, with the exception of a couple, that feel like 10, 11-win seasons every year are the norm, particularly where we are right now," Freeze said. "But I certainly think we should be knocking at the door of that from time to time.