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Ole Miss 2013 season preview

The surprise team of the SEC West last season, Ole Miss managed to reach a bowl in a year that some expected the Rebels to be the worst team in the division. Hugh Freeze's team closed strong with a 41-24 win over rival Mississippi State to reach bowl eligibility, then a 38-17 win over Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl. More impressively, the Rebels did it with a team that failed to produce a single NFL draft pick in 2013, or even an NFL Scouting Combine invite.

With a returning starting quarterback, some solid talent at wide receiver, and an elite incoming freshman class expected to make an early impact, reaching a bowl would be the minimum expectation this season. Junior wide receiver Donte Moncrief is probably the most NFL-ready player on the roster, and could draw a strong grade from the NFL Draft Advisory Board if he has a productive season. In time, he could be the first Rebel chosen in the first two rounds since Dexter McCluster in 2010.

Top senior prospects

LB Mike Marry: The heart and soul of the Rebels' defense delivered 78 tackles and plenty of leadership last year as a junior, including 10.5 tackles for loss, which ranked second on the team. His speed, however, will prevent him from being a prized NFL pick. Look for Marry to be a final-day draft pick or an undrafted free agent.

DB Charles Sawyer: The safety prospect is active in run support (63 tackles last year), but did some nice work in coverage as well with a team-high eight pass breakups. He is a very intelligent and instinctive player who is always in the right position. Sawyer doesn't have great speed, but he could be a nickel-type player in the NFL if given a chance in the right system.

Top underclassmen

DB Chief Brown: As a redshirt freshman last year, the safety made only 17 stops, but he was extremely impressive in the spring and those close to the program believe he could be one of the surprise players in the SEC this season. Brown has good size at 6-foot-1, 202 pounds, and he can hit as hard as anyone in the secondary.

DB Trae Elston: A 2012 Freshman All-SEC pick, Elston made 61 tackles and broke up six passes as a key piece of the Rebels' defense in his first year. Was suspended by the SEC for a helmet-to-helmet hit in a win over UTEP.

DE C.J. Johnson: To find his way into the NFL, Johnson will have to make a switch from defensive end to linebacker because of his size (6-3, 233). But the third-team All-SEC pick knows how to rush the passer, leading the Rebels in sacks as a sophomore with 6.5 last year. He is still working his way back from a spring injury.

WR Donte Moncrief: Last season, Moncrief was Ole Miss' leading receiver by far with 979 yards on 66 catches and 10 touchdowns, numbers that ranked him sixth, sixth and third in the SEC, respectively. He is physical, has good hands and is explosive after the catch.

OL Aaron Morris: Morris started every game at left guard for the Rebels last season and received All-America honorable mention honors from College Football News. He has plenty of size at 6-5, 330, and may have some potential as a tackle as well. Reminds of: Former Ole Miss lineman Chris Spencer (2005 Seahawks first-round pick).

DE Robert Nkemdiche: If the nation's No. 1-rated recruit isn't worthy of an NFL watch list, no freshman is. The younger brother of Denzel is expected to make an immediate difference in Ole Miss' pass rush. If he lives up to a fraction of the hype, he'll be a three-years-and-out college player.

Check out the top 10 all-time players from Mississippi.

Three must-see games of 2013

Aug. 29 at Vanderbilt: The Rebels and Commodores will play the first SEC game of the season on a Thursday night. Considered the upstarts of their respective divisions, the winner will hold that status. The loser might not.

Sept. 14 at Texas: The Longhorns' offense embarrassed Ole Miss last season. They might do it again, but this time the Rebels' offense might be able to keep up.

Nov. 28 at Mississippi State: The Rebels signed one of the nation's top recruiting classes in February, and by the time the Egg Bowl kicks off in late November, that class could be playing a major role.

Follow Chase Goodbread on Twitter @ChaseGoodbread.

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