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Freeze Tag

You saw “The Blind Side.” I saw “The Blind Side.” We probably arrived at the same conclusion: Hugh Freeze is not as savvy a recruiter as is Leigh Anne Tuohy.

You will recall that Freeze, 43, was Michael Oher’s football coach at Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis, Tenn., but that it was Oher’s legal guardian-cum-adoptive mother, Tuohy, who seemed to have the biggest impact on his decision to devote himself to the gridiron. And it was Leigh Anne’s and her husband, Sean’s, ties to Ole Miss as alums that were probably the most persuasive arguments for Oher to sign with the Rebels (“because that’s where my family went to college”).

And yet the biggest story of the coming week, the apex of which will be Wednesday’s National Signing Day (it will soon overtake Valentine’s Day as the most significant date on the February calendar), is the harvest that Freeze may be reaping in Oxford. While verbal commitments may not be worth the paper they are not even signed on, we must note that Mississippi may very well sign two of the nation’s top five recruits.

To enumerate: Defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, a 6’5”, 260-pound Clowney clone who is considered the top overall recruit in the nation. And wide receiver Laquon Treadwell of Crete, Ill., whom Rivals.com ranks as the nation’s No. 5 overall player as well as its top receiver. Laremy Tunsil, who is rated No. 5 overall on the ESPN 150 and is the top-rated player at Oher’s position, offensive tackle, is now said to also be seriously considering Ole Miss.

It is a charming campus and, of course, there’s that old line about how the school red-shirts Miss Americas. Wiki research tells us that they have had three since 1959, which is also equals the number of SEC Championships the Rebels have won in that span. However, the last “Ole Miss America” was crowned in 1986. The last Ole Miss SEC champion was crowned in 1963.

In fact, in every year since 1963 at least one Southeastern Conference school has finished in the top ten in the season’s final Associated Press (AP) poll. In that era the Rebels have inscribed their names on that list just twice: in 1963 and 1969. Five of the last six national champions have come from Mississippi’s six-team division known as the SEC West (Alabama thrice, Auburn and LSU once). But in that same six-year span, 2007-2012, have finished in last place with an 0-8 conference record three times.

The SEC West is inarguably the nation’s most concentrated collection of gridiron prowess, and just as inarguably Ole Miss or its Magnolia State neighbor, Mississippi State, is its weakest link. So the question becomes: Exactly how is Hugh Freeze, after just one season in Oxford, beating Nick Saban and Les Miles, and even Arkansas and Auburn, for some of the nation’s most coveted recruits?

It’s almost as if Freeze, what’s the term, blindsided everybody.

Freeze is an Oxford native, though he attended Southern Miss, where he earned a B.S. in mathematics, according to the Ole Miss website. Impressive. So Freeze should understand as well as anyone that the numbers of Ole Miss’ record, say, the past, oh, fifty years and its recruiting rankings this winter don’t quite add up. Freeze’s response to the skeptics befits that of the state motto of another SEC school whose first four letters match Mississippi’s: Show Me.

“If you have facts about a violation, send it to compliance@olemiss.edu,” Freeze tweeted last Friday. “If not, please do not slander these young men or insult their family.”

Minus the grammatical error in agreement (“families”), you have to respect Freeze’s tweet. For instance, the leading tackler on last year’s Ole Miss squad, in Freeze’s debut season, was redshirt freshman Denzel Nkemdiche. An undersized (5’11”, 203 pounds) linebacker playing in the nation’s most physical conference, Nkemdiche epitomizes the overlooked high school player who shined once he got an opportunity. And his brother – you guessed at least one sentence earlier – is Robert Nkemiche.

And where the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit goes, other recruits follow. Kids like to win. They also like to play, which is a promise that Freeze can make to incoming freshmen with a straighter face than Miles or Saban, whose rosters are stocked with four- and five-stars of different vintages, are able to do.

In fact, if you’re Hugh Freeze, selling is easy: “You know what’s better than warming the bench at Alabama or LSU for a year or two…or three? Beating Alabama and LSU, and being on the field when it happens.”

What’s also interesting, deafening in fact, is the silence emanating from precincts such as Tuscaloosa, Baton Rouge and Fayetteville over Freeze’s potential bounty. Of course, coaches are not permitted to speak about recruits, and none of them would be dumb enough to comment on a recruiting haul that has yet to actually happen, so that may explain it. On the other hand, all of these coaches know how the soup is actually made and the ingredients involved. Omerta comes to the SEC West, and why not?

In less than 36 hours all of the questions will be answered. And if Freeze happens to pull in a top ten recruiting class, well, what would be so horrible about that? What would be so awful if in a year or two Ole Miss, which just happens to be located in the smallest town in the SEC West, where every town with the possible exception of Baton Rouge is exactly that – a town, not a city – elevates into a national power on the field?

If Freeze, who only four years earlier was coaching at Lambuth University, an NAIA school in Jackson, Tenn., subverted any NCAA rules in lassoing this class, let the reporters and NCAA investigators discover it. If not? No one ever said hegemony had to be a rule of law in college football.

Ole Miss becoming a factor in the SEC West. Hotty Toddy, gosh almighty! That could be fun. That could read like a quote straight from “The Blind Side”. “We were wondering if you’d like to become a part of this family.” “I kind of thought I already was.”

Are you ready for the NEXT STEP!