When the reports leaked out in late November 2017 (reported by Neal McCready of Rebel Grove) that Matt Luke would have his interim tag removed, the vast and overwhelming (at least in the public eye) reactions to the news reeked of inevitability – that it was always going to happen because “We are Ole Miss.”
Sure enough, there were those who opposed the hire – rather vocally – and there were those who fell in love instantly. Over the past few months, more and more have come over to Luke’s side because he has routinely sprinkled the magic fairy dust (recruiting success) and passed every off-the-field test in the buildup to the first season on the gridiron where the program is truly his.
Still, the program has more Hugh Freeze in it than Matt Luke. Luke has but one recruiting class in, whereas the rest of the players – and often the program’s best players – are remnants of Freeze’s tenure.
While the players are still predominantly leftovers, so to speak, from the Freeze Era, Luke has changed the culture. He brought a contentious locker room together and instilled a new mental toughness in a program where the only constants were head-scratching off-field distractions.
Many wanted Ole Miss to find a more seasoned candidate to bring the program back from the brink of fading back into obscurity, while others called for someone of Luke’s pedigree – someone who bled red and blue, one might say – to carry the Rebels back to calm waters and, hopefully, success.
Luke won the job in the end. Make no mistake, he earned the full-time job. But detractors will argue that he was only able to earn the job because of the desolate state Ole Miss found itself facing. In the end, it doesn’t matter. He probably doesn’t care, and everyone knows that if he wins, he will win over the naysayers.
To his credit, Matt Luke has passed every test to this point. In the true pretentious nature of a college football coach, he has provided the secret-but-not-so-secret ingredient: hope. His Egg Bowl win, his early recruiting successes, and his ability to avoid making any drastic missteps, they have all played on the emotional attachment of the fans, drawing them back into the fray, an all-too inevitable outcome.
His first recruiting class featured high-profile names – on the offensive side of the ball, at least – something that has plagued the Rebels not in recent years. His 2019 class is promising early, though the top-10 ranking is more quantity than quality and is offensively heavy, too, especially with losing top defensive commit Diwun Black to Florida.
Still, it’s positive publicity. He was good at media days: the object of Media Days (especially for Ole Miss after the last few years) is to avoid lighting a raging wildfire – see Larry Fedora, or later and, perhaps, more arrogantly, Urban Meyer.
However, it would not be just, nor would it be wise, to judge the outlook of Luke’s tenure from on-field success in 2018. Sure, it is fair to criticize him if he costs them a game because he mismanages a situation, but the more likely outcome is that any struggles will be due to the unbalanced roster he inherited. For as many proven playmakers as the Rebels have on offense, they lack the same on defense.
No, the first true sign into whether Luke will, or will not, be a success in Oxford will have little to do with any game on the schedule, though one would argue upending one of the better MSU teams in recent memory for a second-consecutive season would only help his cause.
The first just assessments of his tenure will be ready in December, as the early signing period comes and goes in the blink of a winter morning. He would be advised to secure a few big names, namely those of high-profile in-state prospects early. You do not wish to allow Murphy’s Law to come into play in recruiting. Mississippi State let that happen with A.J. Brown, and Dan Mullen lived to regret it.
The state of Mississippi does not lack for defensive playmakers in the 2019 cycle, and Ole Miss has to get their fair share. Nakobe Dean, a five-star linebacker from Horn Lake, is the closest Luke will come to a must-have. Given the programs shortcomings recruiting linebackers in recent years, he has to exercise those demons sooner than later. Diwun Black, a now-previous defensive-playmaking member of the 2019 class, should also remain a high priority
Further, consecutive recruiting cycles of failing to adequately stock top-end talent across the board will catch up when the 2018 season inevitably concludes with many of the program’s remaining stars moving on the next phase of their careers and lives.
Matt Luke has to pump new blood into a program that had grown stale, and he has to do it immediately, or the program risks tumbling rapidly back off the cliff of relevance and into Power-5 college football’s deep, dark abyss. If he fails to do so, the doubters and cynics alike will pounce because the on-field results won’t be pretty in the rugged SEC West, and the future outlook won’t be any prettier.
Whether it is fair or not isn’t the point, the point is: the 2019 recruiting class should (and will) be astronomically more important than any game Ole Miss will play in 2018.