For the past two seasons, the Ole Miss football team has certainly held its own on the gridiron in the toughest division in all of college football. With an annual slate that features the likes of Alabama, LSU and in-state rival Mississippi State (among others), going a combined 11-5 in conference play has been a respectable feat to say the least. This record also features back-to-back wins over Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide.
However, the conclusion of both the 2014 and 2015 seasons has left a bittersweet taste in the mouths of coach Hugh Freeze and his players. Following the 2014 campaign, the Rebels were embarrassed by TCU 42-3 in the Peach Bowl. This past year, a gut-wrenching triple OT loss to Arkansas may have very well cost them a shot in the college football playoff (had they defeated Florida in the SEC Championship Game).
But the losses to TCU and Arkansas are the least of the Rebels’ worries right now, given what developed on Day One of the 2016 NFL Draft.
Former Ole Miss OT Laremy Tunsil apparently had his social media accounts hacked. And what the supposed hacker(s) uploaded undoubtedly caused him to slide to No. 13 in the draft. There was a video clip featuring a male, presumably Tunsil, smoking through a bong. Then there was a picture displaying a text message conversation involving the transfer of money from an Ole Miss coach to Tunsil. Since the blue-chip prospect was projected to be one of the first players off the board, dropping all the way down to No. 13 was quite the shock for fans and executives around the league. While his video doesn’t represent the school or football program very well, it really only affected his wallet as he lost millions of dollars by sliding so far down the board. He’s no longer a part of the Ole Miss program, so they had nothing to lose sleep over.
The issue came during his post-draft press conference. While answering questions from media members, Tunsil openly admitted to accepting money from coaches in Oxford — the ultimate no-no in the eyes of the NCAA. While the NCAA ultimately cannot punish Tunsil in any way, it can certainly lay down the law on his former team. And while no sanctions may be handed down immediately, don’t be surprised if Hugh Freeze finds himself with fewer scholarships to work with in the coming years. There may even be a postseason bowl ban if the distribution of money is found to be a common theme within the program.
However, Tunsil doesn’t deserve all the blame. He was put in a tough spot. The bong just reveals a flaw in judgement, but the texting conversation (if it is not fake) could cause the program to quickly unravel. Yes, he admitted to accepting money. He obviously did not make that up for media attention (I think the hacking incidents garnered him far more of that than he expected or desired). However, I can understand if telling the truth in front of dozens of cameras was the only way around it and a no-risk move for himself. Like I said, the NCAA can’t do anything to Tunsil now that he’s no longer a student-athlete.
Ole Miss now faces this issue: if Tunsil accepted money, how many other highly-recruited players did as well? Their 2013 signing class alone featured Tunsil, Laquon Treadwell and Robert Nkemdiche, all first-round selections this year. Signing Nkemdiche, the nation’s top overall prospect, was understandable because his brother was already on scholarship and their mother wanted them to play on the same team. Treadwell is a different story. The consensus No. 1 WR from Illinois was rated as a top-10 overall player by Rivals. His decision to attend Ole Miss when he had scholarships from a bevy of other schools including Notre Dame and Clemson was head scratching to say the least. I can see if he was from the Mississippi area or if he, like Nkemdiche, had family ties there. However, this wasn’t the case. I’m not saying that Treadwell was paid to attend the University of Mississippi. But I’m not saying that he wasn’t either.
This odd trend on the recruiting front was not just a one-year wonder. Current starting QB Chad Kelly opted to transfer to the Rebels. While he did have disciplinary issues which led to his dismissal from Clemson, most wouldn’t have pegged Oxford as the place to try and revitalize a career. On the most recent National Signing Day in February, Hugh Freeze brought in the nation’s top recruited QB (Shea Patterson) and OT (Gregory Little). Neither of these players hail from the state of Mississippi, which should only further raise eyebrows by people all around the country. Nothing against the school or program, but I just feel there are better options for the top-tier recruits to excel. If their long-term goal is to be drafted, Ohio State is a prime place to go. If they want to compete for a title every year, Alabama is their best bet. If they are looking to combine athletics and academics, they should enroll at Stanford because I’ve heard they have a pretty good reputation with books. The University of Mississippi is a fine institution, but it is not up to par with any of these schools in the mentioned areas.
So the subject has been presented on whether Ole Miss is providing improper benefits to players in exchange for their services on the football field. I fully expect the NCAA to investigate into this issue, but whether anything substantial comes of it only remains to be seen.
Information courtesy of: Rivals.com and ESPN.com
Feature image courtesy of: Vimeo.com