Editor's note: The spectacle that is SEC media days ended two weeks ago. But with the newly-expanded four-day media event over, we're at a bit of a loss. Fall camp isn't here just yet; the regular season is even further away, with the 2014 campaign kicking off at the end of August. So what better time to roll out the preseason power rankings among teams in the SEC?
With that in mind, we'll count down the teams from worst to first. The format will involve a "best-case/worst-case" scenario for each team, taking our a page out of former War Eagle Extra beat writer Andy Bitter's playbook from 2010. (One final note: Please, as Bitter said four years ago, remember all scenarios "are meant to be hyperbolic.")
No. 6: Ole Miss
As many know by now, Ole Miss has the top returning quarterback in the Southeastern Conference in terms of career passing yards (6,340), completions (518) and touchdowns (40). That player is none other that Bo Wallace. Despite those league-best numbers, however, he was a third-team All-SEC preseason selection by media members, behind Auburn's Nick Marshall and Mississippi State's Dak Prescott.
At media days, Wallace admitted he wasn't happy with the slight. Maybe the Rebels should feel the same way — media members predicted they would finish in fourth place in the SEC West this year.
Best-case scenario: Coach Hugh Freeze pulls off his best John Vaught impersonation, leading the Rebels to their first SEC title since 1963. On paper, taking on Boise State in Atlanta in the season opener looks like a tricky game. But the Rebels take all the drama out of the proceedings early, flexing their muscle in a one-sided 48-10 affair. That's followed by three more victories (Vanderbilt, Louisiana-Lafayette), clearing the stage for an epic encounter with unbeaten Alabama.
Playing at home, the Rebels don't blink, knocking off the Crimson Tide 24-20. At 5-0, Ole Miss is riding high and arguably playing as well as any team in the country. After wins over Texas A&M, Tennessee and LSU, the Rebels once again brace for a massive match against an undefeated team from Alabama. This time it's Auburn, the defending SEC champion and the No. 2 team in the nation. With Ole Miss at No. 4, it's the first time the Rebels have been involved in a top-five tussle since Jan. 1, 1962. That day, No. 3 Texas downed No. 5 Ole Miss 12-7 in the Cotton Bowl. But this matchup marks the first time in the history of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium two top-five teams have squared off against each other. Somehow, the game goes on to live up to the buildup; it's a see-saw, back-and-forth battle, but playing in front of a friendly and record-setting crowd — 63,007 fans pack the house, the most to ever watch a game on campus in the state of Mississippi — the Rebels prevent the Tigers from capturing back-to-back league crowns, taking a 30-27 victory.
In its next two games, Ole Miss doesn't have to expend much energy, putting things in cruise control versus Presbyterian and Arkansas. Then comes the Egg Bowl. After fumbling the game away — literally — in 2013, Wallace redeems himself, tossing five touchdowns as the Rebels pull out a 42-38 thriller. At 12-0, it's the first perfect regular season for the Rebels since the legendary 1962 squad went 10-0. But there's still more work to be done. For the second time this fall, the Rebels are back in Atlanta. This time, they face a team much closer to the Georgia Dome than Boise — the Bulldogs of Georgia. It's a dramatic contest, with four lead changes in the first half alone. But as has been Ole Miss' calling card all season, it doesn't blink in the big moment. Needing to engineer a game-winning drive on the final possession, Wallace does just that, leading the Rebels on a nine-play, 82-yard drive. He threads the needle to Laquon Treadwell from the 7-yard line with 15 seconds remaining to lift Ole Miss to a 31-28 victory.
At 13-0, the Rebels are a no-brainer pick for the initial College Football Playoff. And considering they were able to go through the nation's toughest league without a blemish, they're also a shoo-in for the top overall seed, which places them in the Sugar Bowl opposite the fourth-seeded Oregon Ducks. Playing on Jan. 1 brings back mixed memories; the last time Ole Miss played on this day, Michigan smashed its way to a 35-3 win in the Gator Bowl. In their 11 previous appearances on New Year's Day, the Rebels own a losing record (5-6). On the other hand, the Sugar Bowl has been particularly sweet for Ole Miss, as it boasts a 5-3 record in its eight showings in New Orleans.
Weeks and weeks of intense hype lead into the game. And for the first time all season, the Rebels feel a pressure they haven't felt before: that of being the favorite. With all the bright lights shining down upon them, the Rebels come out shaky. Wallace can't locate his targets, Treadwell drops a pair of easy passes. Oregon, meanwhile, wastes no time getting its lightning quick offense untracked scoring touchdowns on each of its first two possessions. After the anxiousness fades away, the Rebels settle in. At the half, it's tied at 17-all.
Each team scores 10 more in the third quarter, heading into a nail-biting final period. In the final 15 minutes, Marcus Mariota takes over, showing how he became Oregon's first Heisman Trophy with a pair of touchdown passes to cap a 41-35 . While bitterly disappointed their season ended one game short of making the national championship, it's hard not be satisfied. The team set a slew of single-season records and Wallace leaves as the most decorated signal-caller in Rebels' history that doesn't have "Manning" affixed as his surname. Freeze is approached by countless other schools, but the Mississippi native tells his suitors he's happy in Oxford. Elsewhere, Dan Mullen and Mississippi State struggle to a 6-7 finish.
With an improved record each of his first three years, Ole Miss' fan base is convinced Freeze is the man to take them back to the lofty level set forth by Vaught himself. Worst-case scenario: Freeze doesn't pull off any Vaught impersonation, or impression; instead, Ole Miss shows regression. It takes all of one game to realize the season isn't going to turn out the way the Rebels had hoped. In the season opener versus Boise State in the Georgia Dome, the Broncos look like the more disciplined team, even though its playing under a first-year coach in Bryan Harsin. Despite his pledge to cut down on interceptions, Wallace does little to aid his cause by throwing a trio of picks in the first half. The Rebels are hamstrung by his bad decision-making after getting sacked six times, it's clear they're in need of more help up front. (Ole Miss lost seven offensive linemen since the end of last season.) After a 38-20 loss, the Rebels leave Atlanta taking few positives with them.
Even so, things start to brighten up when they tear off a three-game win streak, rolling over Vanderbilt, Louisiana-Lafayette and Memphis. But then they're brought back down to Earth by Alabama, which beats Ole Miss like a drum in a 45-7 laugher. But the Rebels sink to even lower depths in the next four weeks, as they lose three more times (at Texas A&M, at LSU and home versus Auburn). The only victory in that span is against Tennessee in the homecoming contest, and even that one made Ole Miss backers sweat. The Rebels only escape with a 27-24 win thanks to the Volunteers missing the potential game-tying field goal as time expires.
Sitting at 4-5, the Rebels have to win two of their last three games to clinch a bowl berth for the third straight season. The first one is an easy, exhibition-like effort versus Presbyterian. A much-improved Arkansas squad pushes Ole Miss to the brink two weeks later, but the Rebels are able to depart Fayetteville with a 30-24 victory to punch their ticket to the postseason. But in the game that matters most to fans in the Magnolia State, Ole Miss comes up short in the Egg Bowl for the second year in a row. While last year was a frustrating overtime defeat, this one is a frustrating regulation loss, made all the more disappointing by the fact it's over midway through the third period. Prescott goes up, over and around the Rebels' defense, running and passing at will, as the Bulldogs take a 59-7 win. It's the second-largest margin of victory in the history of the series, trailing only the 65-0 annihilation Mississippi State wreaked upon its arch-rival in 1915. The triumph helps Mullen improve to a pristine 5-1 against the team he derisively refers to as "the school up north."
The Rebels slink into their final game of the year — the Birmingham Bowl for the second time in three seasons — in a foul mood. It's clear which team is happier to be there, and it obviously isn't Ole Miss. East Carolina takes advantage, topping the SEC representative 34-21. A 6-7 season isn't what anyone in Oxford envisioned, and unlike 2013, a top-five recruiting class isn't falling out of the sky. And to make matters worse, Mississippi State finishes the year with a decisive win in its bowl game to set a single-season school record for victories with 11.