All in all it's been a successful calendar year for Ole Miss athletics. An eight-win football season and bowl victory has Hugh Freeze on a solid trajectory entering year No. 3 of his era. The men's basketball team won an SEC championship and an NCAA Tournament game, and the athletic department as a whole is on stable ground. Here are 10 key dates for the year ahead.
Jan. 11, 2014:: Ole Miss has missed a couple nonconference opportunities so far, losing to Kansas State in Manhattan and at home to Oregon in overtime. That makes the margin for error in conference play more slim, and the Rebels have to navigate the first two league games without Marshall Henderson, as part of his split suspension. The Rebels open at home against Auburn and then travel to Mississippi State. On paper it's two winnable games, but the road is more difficult without Henderson -- especially in Starkville. Ole Miss has to avoid an 0-2 start. The trip back from Starkville will tell a lot about what's going to happen.
Feb. 5, 2014: It's National Signing Day. I could stop right there without explanation. Ole Miss saw last season what an impressive haul can do for a program. Four different Rebels earned freshman All-America honors, and Evan Engram grabbed some accolades despite missing half the season. Last signing day was an informercial for Ole Miss' program on ESPN. The Rebels currently have a top-15 class, and some major prospects remain on the board. This is as important as any other date on the calendar. The program has made strides, winning 15 games in two years, but depth remains an issue.
March. 13, 2014: This dates marks the end of the nonconference-only portion of the schedule for the Ole Miss baseball team. The Rebels have a lot of questions and few defined roles. Mike Bianco will have to play with niches and find the right combinations, but Ole Miss can't lose a ton of non-league games in the process. I don't see a gaudy SEC record, so these games are very important to getting to the postseason if that's the case. The early schedule needs to be a resume enhancer. The Rebels can't afford bad marks against Stetson, Central Florida and others.
March 16, 2014: Selection Sunday for NCAA basketball is this one. The Rebels made the tournament for the first time under Andy Kennedy last season, and with the SEC not exactly strong top to bottom there's opportunity again. Whatever the result is, we'll know here.
Spring, 2014: Ole Miss recently closed the loan for the new basketball arena, and construction is scheduled to begin sometime in the spring. It's a key moment, as the plans finally make tangible progress and signal a major enhancement to the Ole Miss campus. The new facility is supposed to be ready in a couple years, but shovels meeting dirt will be a big step in showing the progress. It's a much-needed improvement and has no negatives.
May 17, 2014: It's the final day of the baseball regular season, as Ole Miss finishes up the 2014 schedule in College Station, Texas. Will Ole Miss be in line to host? Will the Rebels be safely in as an at-large selection? Is Hoover a question mark? And most importantly, what's Mike Bianco's status? Ross Bjork didn't deliver the head coach a major vote of confidence in the offseason, essentially providing a do-over for 2013. There wasn't an extension past the one-year add-on so Bianco isn't coaching in the final year of a deal. The salary structure remained the same. It's a critical season for the winningest coach in school history.
August 28, 2014: The Rebels should be a trendy pick to make noise in the SEC next season, and the first game is a PR opportunity. Ole Miss plays Boise State in the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff event at the Georgia Dome. The Broncos appear to be taking a step back, while Ole Miss is moving forward. A big win in the opener with that audience could be a nice springboard to getting off to a hot start. Boise State will be breaking in a new coach, and Ole Miss will have a lot of game experience ready to go.
October 4, 2014: This could be Alabama game or the Vanderbilt game, but I went with the date against the Crimson Tide. The Rebels must win in Nashville in Week Two to reach the significance possible with this one, but I think that happens. Ole Miss and College Gameday haven't matched up since the show began, but this is a big possibility if the Rebels take care of early business. After Boise and Vandy, the Rebels have just Louisiana-Lafayette and Memphis in the way of a 4-0 start. Other than the ESPN pregame show, it would have Ole Miss ranked and at home against Alabama. Big. Opportunity. There's work to do first, but this is on the list.
Nov. 29, 2014: The Egg Bowl makes the list for the third consecutive season. Had the Rebels won this past November I likely would have left it off this time, but it's critical for Ole Miss to keep the Bulldogs from winning a fifth time in six games. Also it's in Oxford. MSU's run has happened because of winning in Oxford in 2010. This has become a home-and-home series similar to basketball with the home team having a huge advantage. The Rebels need to hold serve. Also, it's just a game Ole Miss has to have to meet season expectations.
Dec. 7, 2014: Bowls are announced on this date. It would be a shock for Ole Miss to not be in that announcement, but the Rebels haven't been in three straight bowls since going to four straight from 1997-2000, so it's notable. Also, Wallace has a chance to win three bowls as an Ole Miss starting quarterback. Has that ever happened before? It's the most stable Ole Miss' program has been in a long time, if this plays out as expected.