Ole Miss football has had two more mascots than winning seasons since 2015.
You remember 2015? The Rebels, coached by Hugh Freeze and sporting future NFL players at several key positions, won their 10th game in the Sugar Bowl, trouncing Oklahoma State 48-20.
The future seemed so bright. And then it unraveled, and we don't need to go through all the reasons, some sordid, why that happened. Suffice to say, Ole Miss has gone 5-7, 6-6 and 5-7 in the three full seasons since. The Rebels are 3-3 this year after last Saturday night's 31-6 trouncing of Vanderbilt.
Still, it's difficult to see a road map to six victories and a bowl this season. It's harder, still, to see a path to seven victories and a winning season with Missouri, Texas A&M, Auburn, New Mexico State, LSU and Mississippi State (in Starkville) left to play. If oddsmakers were to make a line on all those games today, Ole Miss would be favored in just one – the home game with those Aggies of New Mexico State.
Nevertheless, there suddenly seems some hope for the near future – and perhaps even the present.
That hope starts with John Rhys (pronounced Ries, not Rees) Plumlee, the 18-year-old true freshman quarterback, who can run like a sprinter among the many, many talents he possesses. Most importantly, he seems to have the “it” factor that all great quarterbacks possess. He has leadership ability, grit, a strong right arm and he makes the players around him better. No. 1 attribute: He possesses uncommon speed at the quarterback position. Give him a crease, he'll give Ole Miss points.
I had been hearing about Plumlee for years from Hattiesburg friends. Mostly I was hearing he was a future Major League baseball player who was about to make millions right out of high school.
And then I saw him in the State 6A Championship football game last December when Oak Grove played Horn Lake. Against one of the best, most talented high school football teams these eyes have seen, Plumlee did everything but win. He threw for 348 yards, often scrambling away from an all-night Horn Lake pass rush. He returned kicks for 158 yards. He punted. He held for kicks. And then he sobbed after Horn Lake won 31-27.
Said Horn Lake coach Brad Boyette, “I'll tell you one thing about Plumlee. Any time the ball was in his hands, I couldn't even take a breath. Man, he's a great player.”
Plumlee was committed to Georgia at that time. The Bulldogs wanted him to graduate early and be on hand for spring practice. Plumlee wanted to play his senior year of baseball at Oak Grove. Georgia then wanted him to “blue shirt” – meaning he would have to pay his way for at least one semester at Georgia.
Plumlee re-opened his recruitment. Ole Miss won the recruiting battle with several others. I've seen enough to believe Georgia will regret its decision.
The Ole Miss offense seems a perfect fit for Plumlee. Offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez loves quarterbacks who can run. A dozen years ago Rodriguez and quarterback Pat White put West Virginia in the national college football spotlight. White, a resourceful and lightning quick quarterback, ran a 4.35 40 – about the same speed Plumlee possesses.
And White was surrounded by speed. So is Plumlee – and will be for years. Jerrion Ealy and Snoop Conner, both true freshmen running backs, can fly. Indeed, freshmen and redshirt freshmen play key roles all over the field for Ole Miss.
That's hope for the future. But to put that in perspective: equally talented freshmen are probably red-shirting or waiting their turns at the SEC football factories such as Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Auburn, Texas A&M and others. It's a ridiculously tough league.
Still, where there's speed, there's hope. Ole Miss has a lot of it – and it's young.
Rick Cleveland (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist.