OXFORD, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi's once-promising football season ended on Saturday with a final, embarrassing thud in a lopsided Egg Bowl loss.
The Rebels (5-7, 2-6 Southeastern Conference) looked nothing like a team that was ranked No. 11 in the preseason poll, thanks to injuries to several key players and a porous defense that was once again overwhelmed during a 55-20 home loss to the Bulldogs .
In the aftermath, coach Hugh Freeze didn't try to find any positives. The only silver lining he could see in this game was it's the last of 2016.
The Rebels won't play in a bowl game and finish with a losing record for the first time in Freeze's five-year tenure.
“I'm glad this season is over now,” Freeze said. “It's been difficult. I can't wait to hit the road recruiting, get the necessary changes made and get to spring ball.”
One big change is already known: Ole Miss defensive coordinator Dave Wommack announced his retirement about an hour before the Egg Bowl.
Under Wommack, the Rebels had the nation's No. 1 scoring defense in 2014 after giving up just 16 points per game. But the fall has been dramatic: Ole Miss gave up 34 points per game this season, which ranks last in the SEC.
Part of the reason was key injuries to veterans like cornerback Kendarius Webster and defensive lineman Fadol Brown. But the Rebels were also short on SEC-level talent at several positions _ especially linebacker.
Freeze hinted that the changes might not stop at a new defensive coordinator.
“We will look at everyone and everybody,” Freeze said. “We were not good. When you can't stop their base stuff, it's the process or the people.”
Ole Miss was one of the SEC's better offensive teams for most of the fall until senior quarterback Chad Kelly was lost for the season because of a knee injury against Georgia Southern on Nov. 5. In nine games, Kelly threw for 2,758 yards, 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
Freeze then made a decision that will likely be dissected quite a bit in the coming years: He pulled the redshirt off freshman quarterback Shea Patterson, electing to play the star recruit over backup Jason Pellerin.
The move looked brilliant at one point. Patterson immediately led the Rebels to a come-from-behind win over Texas A&M in his first game, but after that came the losses to Vanderbilt and Mississippi State.
The final tally for Patterson in three games: 880 yards passing, six touchdowns and three interceptions. One win. Two losses. No bowl game.
“We probably expected a little too much out of Shea,” Freeze said. “I think everybody did. It's kind of unrealistic to expect him to understand everything he's seeing with the limited reps he's had.”
Still, the experience could help Patterson next season and Freeze said his QB is “a great piece to build the future of this program offensively around.” The Rebels figure to be very good once again on offense in 2017: Four of five offensive linemen are expected to return along with key running backs and receivers.
If the defense can bounce back, Ole Miss could be a threat again in the SEC's Western Division. But Freeze knows this offseason will not be easy.
“We've got a lot of work to do to get back where we want to be,” Freeze said.