By Billy Watkins
Hugh Freeze expects his return Saturday to Ole Miss’ Vaught-Hemingway Stadium to be “different” and “odd.”
“There were a lot of great wins in that stadium that I have great memories of,” said Freeze at his weekly press conference as head coach of the Liberty Flames in Lynchburg, Va. “I appreciate the people there. They’re good people. And (I’m) happy that they’re winning again and competing again like I knew you could there.”
Freeze’s Flames (7-2) will take on Ole Miss (6-2 and ranked 15th in the College Football Playoff poll) at 11 a.m. in what is not your normal non-conference, late-season game for an SEC school. The Rebels are favored by 9.5 points. The betting line opened at 15.5.
Freeze, of course, led Ole Miss to 39 wins and four bowl games as head coach from 2012 through 2016. His Rebels beat Alabama, LSU and Auburn twice each, routed Oklahoma State in the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day 2016 to cap a 10-win season and was one fluke play against Arkansas from having the Rebels in the SEC Championship game.
Ole Miss was one of the hottest programs in the country.
In 2016, a long, much-publicized NCAA investigation expanded while the Rebels went 5-7. Ole Miss was eventually placed on probation. And just before the 2017 season, Freeze was dismissed when records revealed calls to escort services from his university-issued cell phone.
To this day, some Ole Miss fans would welcome him back as head coach at some point. Others hold a vicious grudge.
Four years after his departure, Ole Miss has won 10 of its last 13 games under second-year coach Lane Kiffin. And in his third season at Liberty, an FBS Independent school, Freeze has won 25 games with three regular-season contests remaining.
A fierce competitor, Freeze surely has pointed to this game all season, if not longer. At the same time, he was nostalgic when discussing his return to Oxford.
“Look, I was born there, raised there and I’ll probably be buried there,” said Freeze, 52. “It’s still home. I still have family there, so many friends there. So many have reached out and I look forward to visiting with them if I can find time.
“But I told our guys this morning, there is no other group I’d rather walk in there with and walk out of there with than this group of coaches, staff, administrators and my family.”
He has talked with his players this week about “being present in the moment” each day at practice and to “stand well together” Saturday.
Ole Miss’ powerful offense has been shredded with injuries, especially at the receiver position. The offensive line has been shuffled around since losing standout guard Ben Brown for the season. And last weekend at Auburn, star quarterback Matt Corral — a Heisman Trophy hopeful with 15 touchdown passes and only two interceptions while leading his team in rushing — suffered an ankle injury. He finished the game but it’s uncertain how mobile he will be against Liberty.
The Flames have their own star quarterback: Malik Willis, who is expected to be a first-round NFL draft choice. A transfer from Auburn in 2019, the 225-pound Willis has thrown for 21 touchdowns and been picked off six times. He can make plays running, too.
It was interesting to hear Freeze size up the two offenses: “(Kiffin) has bigger linemen, faster receivers and tailbacks. Quarterback, we’re close.”
He added: “(Willis) is our asset on offense. He’s got to play really well and take care of the football. But he gives you a fighting chance to score points, along with our other kids.
“You’ve got to have a trigger guy if you’re going to beat a team whose depth chart is deeper and probably more talented than yours. It’ll hinge on how well he plays, how well I coach him.
“It would be nice to hold them to some field goals. But our front is going to have to hold up, too. We’ve got to protect him. You can’t expect him to make miracle plays every single time against a defense that has the team speed that Ole Miss does.”
Freeze mentioned Ole Miss defensive end Sam Williams, nose guard KD Hill, defensive backs Jake Springer and Otis Reese, and middle linebacker Chance Campbell in particular.
Freeze is happy with the 11 a.m. start time.
“I’ve seen the difference in those stadiums from early morning to late at night,” he said. “Maybe that’ll help some. But we’ll have to play our best football for sure.”