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September 20, 2013

McCready: Wallace accelerated Rebels' rebuild


OXFORD, Miss. -- It takes some combination of skill, talent and ingenuity to achieve success.

A little luck, in the form of perfect timing, doesn't hurt either.

What if Georgia' Billy Bennett hadn't missed three field goals at LSU in 2003 or Jonathan Nichols hadn't missed a pair later that season against the Tigers in Oxford? Would Nick Saban have still gotten that first national title that launched a superstar career?

What if a team doctor in Miami hadn't flagged Drew Brees' surgically-repaired shoulder? Brees would have signed with the Dolphins and not the Saints. Would Saban have still left Miami if Brees had been under center on South Beach? Would Alabama's football renaissance have happened?

If Brees had signed with the Dolphins, would the Saints still be in New Orleans? Would the devastated city that rallied around a perennial loser-turned-winner have recovered the way it did from Hurricane Katrina had the Saints relocated to San Antonio or Los Angeles?

In February, Ole Miss signed a banner recruiting class, one that netted numerous impact players and put the program very much in the national spotlight. So far this season, many of those signees have helped the Rebels to a 3-0 start, complete with road wins over Vanderbilt and Texas, and a No. 21 national ranking.

It probably doesn't happen if a little more than a year earlier, new coach Hugh Freeze doesn't convince Bo Wallace to sign with Ole Miss. Wallace and Freeze had been together before at Arkansas State, with Freeze serving as the demanding offensive coordinator and Wallace a 17-year-old immature freshman. Due primarily to Wallace's immaturity, the relationship essentially failed, and Wallace left Jonesboro before eventually transferring to East Mississippi Community College.

Had Wallace thrived in his first stint with Freeze, he would almost certainly be the Red Wolves' quarterback today. Because he didn't, Freeze was able to pursue Wallace shortly after landing the gig in Oxford.

This time, the timing was perfect. By virtue of his experience with Freeze's system, Wallace helped Freeze install his offense much more efficiently at Ole Miss. The diversity of said offense helped the Rebels pick up some huge wins in 2012 - wins that made the program attractive to elite prospects.

By November, it was a poorly kept secret that Robert Nkemdiche was going to sign with Ole Miss. That made the Rebels more attractive to offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil and wide receiver Laquon Treadwell. Nkemdiche wouldn't have signed with Ole Miss unless the Rebels had won some of those games. They don't win those games unless Wallace and Freeze find a way to be reunited.

Had Wallace gone elsewhere _ his parents had hoped he'd sign with Mississippi State and Texas was a legitimate threat for several days _ Ole Miss likely would have leaned on Barry Brunetti in 2012. Brunetti, currently the Rebels' backup, hasn't shown the ability to run Freeze's offense as efficiently or effectively as Wallace. It's difficult to imagine the Rebels would have gone 7-6 in that scenario.

Fortunately for Ole Miss fans, all of those hypothetical scenarios are nothing but interesting topics over a cold beer on a balcony overhanging Oxford's downtown Square. The Rebels head to Tuscaloosa to take on Saban and the top-ranked Crimson Tide in eight days, and they'll do it with Wallace at quarterback and as a dangerous opponent on the cusp of contention in the SEC West.

Wallace is healthy and playing smart football these days. He has yet to throw an interception this season. He's making good decisions with the football, sliding at the end of runs and making the Rebels' passing attack efficient by spreading the football among a plethora of gifted targets.

Ole Miss' rapid rebuild is likely one sexy win away from being a major national story. The ascension to prominence is remarkable considering the state of the program at the end of the 2011 season, which marked the culmination of a two-year train wreck in Oxford.

The fact that the Rebels are even contemplating sexy wins, prominence or titles is a story in and of itself, a story that revolves around Freeze's ingenuity, a talented nucleus of players and an opportune dash of luck and good timing.


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