Ole Miss

Preview: Ole Miss vs. Arkansas

Ole_Miss_Walk_Of_ChampionsWhen you and I last visited, I told you that Ole Miss would beat Auburn in a close game that came down to the last series. I was wrong. Auburn beat Ole Miss on the second to last series and broke all the hearts of the Rebel faithful in one tackle and fumble. Not only were Ole Miss’ dreams of winning the SEC West and getting into the College Football Playoff almost* certainly squashed, but the number one Rebel receiver, Laquon Treadwell, was lost for the season to a leg injury that was absolutely stomach churning to watch happen.

Since then, Ole Miss made quick work of Presbyterian and had a nice bye week to rest up for their remaining two regular season games, at Arkansas and an Egg Bowl in Oxford against Mississippi State.

While many Rebel fans are looking at the Egg Bowl already, the Arkansas game is going to prove to be a tough one, much tougher than anyone could have imagined at the beginning of the season. There are plenty of columnists and reporters jumping at the chance to pick Arkansas for the upset.

Arkansas has had an interesting year. While they are clearly a step or two behind the rest of the SEC West, there are plenty of media personalities that believe they would be contending for the top in most other conferences. Such is life in the toughest division in college football, I suppose.

After easily handling their non-conference opponents but dropping every SEC contest in mostly close games, Arkansas went out last week and absolutely dominated LSU 17-0 in an extremely run-heavy game. Obviously Arkansas’ running game is strong if they were able to go at LSU’s stout defense and see those results. They have two running backs that split duties, but who would likely be the featured back at most other SEC schools. Both Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams could break the 1000-yard mark this year, which would be quite the statistic. To put that stat in perspective, Ole Miss’ two primary options at tailback have not combined for as many yards as Collins, the lesser of the two Arkansas backs in terms of yardage, has on his own. Bret Bielema’s hope of turning the Hogs into a run it up the middle team is slowly starting to come together. It will be interesting to see the jump they make between this season and next.

The Rebels, like I mentioned earlier, have had two weeks to heal up some of their battered players. Laremy Tunsil, Cody Prewitt, Trae Elston, I’Tavius Mathers, and Aaron Morris are all listed as probable for the game after suffering various injuries in the LSU and Auburn games. While their play will be hugely important, it’s hard to say how Ole Miss receiving corps will respond in their first SEC game since losing Treadwell. Vince Sanders, Quincy Adeboyejo, and Cody Core are going to have to step it up, especially since the Rebel running game is suspect and the Arkansas D-line is big and hungry to pull off another upset at home.

Not lost in all of the injury and heartbreak the Rebels and their fans have seen in the past month is Bo Wallace taking his rightful place as a premiere SEC quarterback. Aside from his late interception and late fumble against LSU and Auburn, respectively, he has played near flawlessly in conference competition, with those being his only turnovers in SEC play this year. (Compare that to Mississippi State QB and Heisman hopeful Dak Prescott, who has eight interceptions in SEC play.)  Based on Wallace’s great play, this Good Bo/Bad Bo talk should be dead until further notice. Wallace has led the Rebels to an unprecedented season. Fans should be excited to see what the next few games hold in store for him as he has a chance to break several Ole Miss offensive records.

There’s no doubt that on a slow SEC weekend, Ole Miss and Arkansas should provide some excitement. A high speed passing offense taking on a grind it out running offense. A team looking to continue a magical season matched up against a team fighting for a bowl berth and conference legitimacy. Two strong defenses looking to shut down opposing offenses in a late November battle. It has all the makings of a great game. And it’s supposed to be pouring rain in Fayetteville, which will make things all the more interesting,

After a great prediction run to start the season, I had some disappointing showings with the LSU and Auburn games. Hopefully I can get back on track this week.

Hugh Freeze and the Rebels win a tough, tough game. One Ole Miss running back will break out for a 100+ yard game, and the Rebel receivers play admirably in Treadwell’s absence, grabbing two touchdowns with Wallace rushing for the other. The defense will have a hard time with the Hogs’ running game, but they’ll get it together and make it tough for Arkansas to score.

Ole Miss 24 – Arkansas 14

* I say “almost” because technically Ole Miss is still alive to win the SEC West. If they win their remaining two games and Alabama loses to Auburn, then the Rebels will win the SEC West. If that somehow happens and they win in Atlanta, there is absolutely no way the College Football Playoff Selection Committee would turn the Ole Miss away from one of the semifinal slots.

Warner Russell covers Ole Miss Football for MemphiSport. Read his non-sports stuff over on The Wise Guise. Follow him on Twitter @uncle_warny.

Will this year’s Egg Bowl be for the SEC West crown?

Golden-eggFrom Alabama vs. Auburn to Notre Dame vs. USC,  rivalries drive the mania that is college football.

Every rivalry puts pride, respect, and bragging rights on the line.  However, the truly great rivalries catch the eye of the casual fans because they usually have national implications.

Why do folks who may not be Ohio State or Michigan fans pay attention to “The Game”, because it is usually (historically speaking) for the Big Ten Championship.  Why do people in California watch the “Red River Rivalry”?  They watch for the same reason we all watch, because that contest usually determines the winner of the Big 12.

Now there are some lesser rivalries that hold regional interest like “Clean Old Fashioned Hate”, the “Backyard Brawl”, and “The Civil War” all of which matter to their fan bases, but leaves something to be desired from a national perspective.

You can place “The Battle for the Golden Egg”, which Mid-South fans know is between Mississippi State and Ole Miss, in the category of rivalries that get regional interest, but lacks national luster.

Traditionally speaking, the two SEC schools that reside in Mississippi are not very good.  Over the past twenty years, Ole Miss has finished the season ranked in the AP poll only five times.  Mississippi State has not faired any better finishing the season ranked in the AP Poll four times since 1994.  Just once since the SEC added a championship game in 1992 has either school played for the SEC Championship (that was the Bulldogs in 1998). Also, the two schools have managed to get a share of the SEC West crown just twice in that time span (Mississippi State split with Arkansas in 1998 and Ole Miss split with LSU in 2003).

However, this season appears to be different for both schools, as they seem to be poised for a historic run through the SEC, which would set up the biggest Egg Bowl ever.

It is not outside of the realm of possibilities for this year’s Egg Bowl to be for the SEC West crown, and a chance to play in the SEC Championship.

Ole Miss has one of the nation’s best defenses.  They are holding opponents to 248 total yards (fourth in the nation) and allowing just 8.5 points per game (third in the nation) so far this season.  The emphasis Hugh Freeze’s staff has put on defense has the Rebels off to their first 4-0 start since 1970.

Meanwhile in Starkville, Dan Mullin has one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in all of college football, Dak Prescott.  After an injury plagued season last year, Prescott has returned healthier and better.  He accounts for 335 yards of total offense, and led the Bulldogs to their first win in Tiger Stadium since 1991.

An Egg Bowl for the SEC West crown would be exciting and well deserved for the fans of these two programs. No two programs have fans more deserving of a relevant rivalry than Ole Miss and Mississippi State.  They are every bit as rabid and crazed as the best schools in the SEC, and they do this while consistently residing in the SEC dweller. These are two fan bases that show up yearly in support of their programs, regardless of how well the Rebels and Bulldogs are doing. There are few programs that can say that.

It is easy to support programs that are always ranked and competes for conference championships year in and year out.  Those programs get bandwagon fans on top of their real fans along with the adoration of the national media.  ESPN College Gameday has never been to the state of Mississippi for anything, except to drive through it on their way to LSU, Auburn, or Alabama.  They have been to North Dakota twice!

Okay insert random SEC West school fan here I understand that neither Mississippi State nor Ole Miss has a winning record against you (except Texas A&M, the Bulldogs lead that series 4-3).  It is a rare occurrence for either Mississippi school (let alone both) to beat you in a season, but this might be the year.

If that happens, then the nation will have no choice but to pay attention to “The Battle for the Golden Egg”.

 

SEE ALSO:


CJ Hurt covers college football for MemphiSport. Follow him 
@conradicalness for live tweets from games.

 

Preview: Ole Miss vs. Vanderbilt

Let me begin by saying that my prediction of Ole Miss vs. Boise St. was pretty much spot on. Ugly first half, Ole Miss pulls away late, scores a touchdown to make it look worse than it was, 34-17 final score. Everything I said would happen did, and I was only one point off on the Rebel score and four points off on the Boise St. one. So I guess you can pretty much take the following preview to the bank.

Photo by Chris Evans

Photo by Chris Evans

The Ole Miss/Vandy rivalry is one that doesn’t get much press, and outside of a thriller to open the season last year and an ultra-close late season matchup two years ago, hasn’t produced a ton of worthwhile games. But it is an interesting rivalry of late as Vandy has largely had Ole Miss’ number in recent years. Ole Miss fans aren’t exactly thrilled that what was once a very lopsided series has become extremely competitive.

Former Vanderbilt coach James Franklin spent several years doing what many thought could not be done. He turned the Commodores into a competitor, a team that could break the top-25 and get to decent bowl games. He put the laughingstock of the SEC on the map, but many knew that it wouldn’t last forever. The inevitable happened this past offseason and Franklin took off, along with his recruits, to rebuild the Penn State program, leaving a mess behind in Nashville.

Franklin’s replacement, former Stanford assistant coach Derek Mason, has potential and the capability to win, but it’s not likely to happen this season. After opening the year with an embarrassing home loss to a Temple team that went 2-10 last year, many Vanderbilt faithful are afraid they are looking down the barrel of a disastrous season. Their playmakers from last season are gone. The quarterback position is up in the air. Leadership on the field is lacking. Not an ideal combination for the Commodores.

Ole Miss is headed to Nashville on the heels of a decent showing against a middling, by their standards, Boise St. team. While the Rebels won big, there was nothing pretty about the first half, and Ole Miss QB Bo Wallace looked like the same old Bo everybody thought would finally turn the corner this year. The Rebels might not have won as convincingly as they or Coach Freeze hoped, but it was still a good win, pretty much the opposite of the way Vanderbilt started the season.

The Rebels are picked to win big in this one. Ole Miss hasn’t beaten Vanderbilt by more than 16 since 1998, but is still favored by 20 points. That says a lot right there. Ole Miss has the talent on both sides of the ball, the experience on the field and on the sideline, and has a lot more swagger heading into the game. On top of all that, the game is being held at LP Field instead of Vanderbilt Stadium. This will allow Ole Miss fans to buy more tickets than usual, and in a very historically Rebel-friendly Nashville, means Ole Miss will have close to home field advantage. All signs point to an easy Rebel win.

Vanderbilt will find a way to stay competitive, but much like last week, Ole Miss will pull away in the end. I expect to see Evan Engram get his groove back and one of the Ole Miss running backs to get the ground game going, as it was largely absent last week. Bo Wallace should rebound from his iffy game one performance and find his plethora of talented targets often. On the defensive side, the Rebs will welcome back LB Denzel Nkemdiche from a one game suspension, LB Serderius Bryant from his early targeting ejection against the Broncos, and DT Isaac Gross from an injury that kept him out of the first game. These three will be welcomed sights for Ole Miss fans who want to see their highly touted defense at full strength. Ole Miss starts its SEC slate 1-0.

Ole Miss 38 – Vanderbilt 20

Warner Russell covers Ole Miss Football for MemphiSport. Read his non-sports stuff over on The Wise Guise. Follow him on Twitter @uncle_warny.

Preview: Boise State vs. Ole Miss

Texas A&M v MississippiOle Miss quarterback Bo Wallace said that his goal this year was to get the Rebels to Atlanta. Guess he can go ahead and check that off his list since the Ole Miss season opener against Boise State will be played from the Georgia Dome. Obviously Wallace meant getting the Rebs to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game, but starting the year off in the Georgia Dome for the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game isn’t a bad thing.

For the majority of America, this Thursday’s ESPN matchup between the Ole Miss Rebels and the Boise State Broncos will serve as the official kickoff to the 2014 college football season. With millions of people watching, a lot is on the line for both teams. Boise State is breaking in a new coach and looking to continue their pattern of taking down the big boys while Ole Miss hopes to make the jump into the upper-tier of the SEC.

So how is this early season showdown going to shape up?

Ole Miss has the advantage on paper. With their superior talent, SEC speed on both sides of the ball, and stability with a veteran quarterback and proven SEC coach, it’s no surprise most places are picking the Rebels to win by double digits.

But Boise State thrives in games where they are labeled the underdogs. They have an underrated running back in Jay Ajayi who is coming off of a 1400-yard season and a senior quarterback, Grant Hedrick, who played well last season when his number was called midway through the year. They do have a new, young coach in Bryan Harsin who has seen success in past roles, and he’s ready to make a name for himself in his first big time gig. However it will be mighty tough to fill Chris Petersen’s shoes.

Playing the game in the Georgia Dome obviously lends itself to the Ole Miss cause. Ole Miss will travel well and Boise State will not. While it won’t be nearly to capacity, the game will feel much like an Ole Miss home game.

The biggest difference in my opinion will be the Ole Miss defensive line. (I expect to say that a lot this season.) Boise State, like Ole Miss, has a young, inexperienced offensive line. I expect the Robert Nkemdiche and C.J. Johnson to get to Hedrick often and to have pretty good success at shutting down the Boise State running game. And behind the D-line, the Rebels have an experienced crop of linebackers and a deep secondary. Coach Harsin might have to rely on some non-traditional play calls to find success against an ultra talented Rebel defense, one that many think is among the best in the SEC.

Assuming the Ole Miss defense gets the job done, the Rebels will still need to score some points. As I mentioned earlier, Ole Miss does have a thin O-line, but it is should survive against Boise State’s mediocre defensive front. The Bronco secondary is strong, but so are the Rebel receivers, led by Laquon Treadwell, who should have a nice advantage over those tasked with covering him. There will be some kinks to work out with a new crop of Rebel running backs, and Bo Wallace will likely need a few downs to get back into the swing of things. But overall I see the Ole Miss offense being just fine.

I think Boise State and Ole Miss will struggle with first game jitters early on, but expect that both teams will figure things out by the second quarter. I firmly believe that Boise State is going to find a way, despite being less talented, to make this an interesting game. Just something about Boise State doing that so many times on a big stage makes me think that this game won’t be much different.

However Ole Miss will prove to be too much in the end. I expect the Rebels to break away late in the third quarter and score a touchdown that makes this one look worse than it actually was.

Bo Wallace and Laquon Treadwell will both have big games for Ole Miss. Robert Nkemdiche will make one or two “WOW” plays and establish himself as the force to be reckoned with that many think he will be. Cody Prewitt will grab an inerception and force a fumble. Coach Freeze will let the world know the Rebels are ready for a big year.

The game will end, whether it should or not, with chants of ‘SEC. SEC. SEC” throughout the stadium.

Ole Miss 34 – Boise State 17

Warner Russell covers Ole Miss Football for MemphiSport. Read his non-sports stuff at thewiseguise.com. Follow him on Twitter @uncle_warny.

 

2014 Ole Miss Football Preview

(Photo by Justin Ford)

(Photo by Justin Ford)

College football is finally upon us. After months of waiting, recruiting, media days, and crazy speculation, the opening kick is just days away. And the Ole Miss Football Rebels are ready to get after it.

With another nationally televised Thursday night game lined up as the season-opener, excitement from the team and the fans is high. And coming off the heels of a lackluster end to the 2013 season, Rebel Nation is hoping to start what could be a big season off with a bang.

Personally, I think this will be a breakout year for Coach Hugh Freeze and his Rebels.

So to get you prepared for all things Ole Miss Football, here are some general thoughts, a brief game-by-game breakdown, and the ever-important (never remotely correct) season prediction.

Super Sophs:

Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell, Laremy Tunsil, and the rest of the incredible 2013 recruiting class got their feet wet last year. Treadwell was SEC Freshman of the Year and led the team in receptions (as defenses focused on now Indianapolis Colt Donte Moncrief). Tunsil had a great season on the O-line and has many people thinking that he could be the best LT in the SEC. Expectations are high for these two. But Nkemdiche is still the one on whom Rebel faithful are hanging their hope. After an up-and-down freshman campaign that saw some behavior issues on the field, some detrimental hero playing, and a modest set of stats, Nkemdiche is poised to break out. He’s measured at 6’5” and weighs in at 290 lbs. And he has a six-pack. He’s also pretty fast. Needless to say, he’s a genetic freak. In practices, the offensive line (albeit a thin one) has had a nearly impossible time containing him. Look for him to get to opposing QBs early and often. Mix these three playmakers in with the rest of the sophomore class, and you have a group of youngsters that will make their presence known in every game.

Mr. Freeze:

Coach Hugh Freeze has the Rebels on a serious upward trajectory. With an unexpected bowl win in his first season, landing the aforementioned Super Sophs, and some big victories last season capped off by another bowl win, Freeze has people down in Oxford believing. He also has a pretty good jumpstart on the Class of 2016 recruits and just flipped a big prospect from Nick Saban’s grasp. Obviously it’s early for those kids, however it still says a lot about Freeze’s ability to recruit if he can flip kids from Alabama. But despite being a recruiting mastermind and having two good seasons, fans are ready for a great season with more than one or two big wins. Rebel fans want to compete for the SEC and a lot of them think Freeze is the guy that can lead the team to Atlanta.

No Place Like Home:

This year’s schedule sets Ole Miss up for some big success. A lackluster non-conference slate should give the Rebels four relatively easy wins, and drawing Alabama and Auburn at home along with a down Tennessee team and a Mississippi State team Ole Miss badly wants revenge against makes many believe Oxford could provide some fireworks on Saturday this fall. If Ole Miss could get one or both of the games against foes from Alabama, a 10-win season is absolutely on the table. The two tough road tests are against a Johnny Football-less Texas A&M and a typically strong LSU team. The past few seasons have had some rough away games, so Ole Miss will be expected to take advantage of this friendly schedule.

Dr. Bo Knows:

Rebel QB Bo Wallace is a senior. He says he’s as healthy as he’s ever been. Coaches testify that his arm strength is back. He’s got the potential to break every Ole Miss QB record this season. So will his arm carry the Rebels to glory? Can he limit the interceptions and fumbles that have haunted him in the past? It’s crazy to think this, but Ole Miss is more stable at QB than it has been in over 10 years, so if Wallace stays healthy and controls his passes, who knows how far Ole Miss can go?

Misc.:

Transfers Damor’ea Stringfellow (WR) and Christian Morris (OL), both highly touted recruits out of high school, are awaiting decisions from the NCAA regarding their eligibility. If they end up getting to play this year, they will both be expected to contribute immediately.

The offensive line is thin. Dangerously thin. Laremy Tunsil can only do so much. This will be the weakest group for the Rebels this season. Look for freshmen and walk-ons to see plenty of time on the O-line, something Ole Miss fan never want to hear given the talent of opposing defensive lines in the SEC.

The injury bug bit Ole Miss hard last year leading up to the fall and in the first few games. And in 2014 cornerbacks Tee Shepard and Carlos Davis (also a punt return specialist) have been ruled out for the year. While the secondary is deep, both of those losses sting a good bit. Rebel faithful are all praying that these are the only big injuries the team will have to deal with this season.

Non-Conference Breakdown:

A few years ago, opening the season against Boise State would have been a death wish for Ole Miss. The Broncos made a name for themselves by dominating teams their own size and upsetting all sorts of giants around the world of college football. But with Chris Petersen coaching the University of Washington now, there’s a pretty consensus thought that Boise will not be shocking the world anytime this year. Needless to say Ole Miss is favored by double digits in their matchup, and I doubt the Broncos will travel well enough to have their fans make a difference in the always SEC friendly Georgia Dome (August 28th). The Rebs should win this one, but I expect it to be a competitive game that will be a fun way to kickoff the football season on a Thursday night.

As for the rest of the non-conference schedule, I don’t expect any scares for Ole Miss and its fans. They will be vastly superior to Louisiana-Lafayette (September 13th), Memphis (September 27th), and Presbyterian (November 8th). The Memphis game should be a fun one as it will rekindle a regional rivalry that makes for a good day in Oxford, and it will also serve as a game to honor former Rebel Chucky Mullins. If you’re unfamiliar with him, look for the SEC Network special It’s Time that will feature his story.

SEC Breakdown:

Vanderbilt – September 6th:

James Franklin is gone. Jordan Matthews is gone. New Coach Derek Mason has agreed to move the game to LP Field, home of the Tennessee Titans, which will allow more Ole Miss fans to attend. Experience on the field and on the sidelines will win the game for the Rebels. Essentially being an Ole Miss home game in Nashville turns the win into a convincing one.

Alabama – October 4th:

If both teams enter this game undefeated, which I predict they will, this will be the biggest Ole Miss home game in history. It will likely host ESPN College GameDay (powered by the Home Depot), and it will be a prime opportunity for the Rebels to make a jump into the upper tier of the SEC West. Alabama will be breaking in a new QB playing in his first true road test. The Tide have had Ole Miss’ number for what feels like decades, but if Ole Miss is going to pull the upset, this is the year. A lot of media folks are picking the Rebels. So am I.

Texas A&M – October 11th:

Ole Miss will ride into College Station on a serious high after upsetting Alabama. Texas A&M will be without Johnny Manziel who orchestrated not one but two game winning drive against the Rebels over the past two seasons. But talent-wise, the Aggies will still be in good shape. And Kevin Sumlin is quickly becoming one of the best coaches in the country. This is a tossup in many people’s books. But I think Ole Miss will be a little too confident and drop this one in a heartbreaker at Kyle Field.

Tennessee – October 18th:

Coach Butch Jones has things heading in the right direction up in Knoxville, but the pieces are far from all fitting together in 2014. The Vols will come to Oxford and an angry Ole Miss team will take care of them with relative ease. Look for a younger running back to breakout in this game. And expect the Rebel defense to absolutely overwhelm Tennessee.

LSU – October 25th:

I fully expect that this will be a night game with a whole lot of hype down on the bayou. Tiger Stadium will be rocking. Two nationally ranked teams will be playing with their eyes on the SEC West crown. The world will be picking LSU, but in the wise words of Mr. Lee Corso, “Not so fast.” I think Hugh Freeze pulls some tricks out of his sleeve for this one, and the Rebels prevail.

Auburn – November 1st:

Last season’s matchup between Ole Miss and Auburn was an interesting and ugly one. Nobody expected Auburn to do what they did in 2013, and not many people predicted them to even beat Ole Miss. But nobody can deny that Gus Malzahn has things rolling down on the Plains. I expect that the Tigers will come to Oxford and take care of business. This will be the first loss the Rebels suffer at home in 2014.

Arkansas – November 22nd:

Bret Bielema had a rough first season in Fayetteville. His smash mouth style of football needs some size, and he just couldn’t make anything happen with his youngsters and Petrino’s leftover speedsters. I still think he’s a couple of years away from making any kind of noise. Rebels win easy.

Mississippi State – November 29th:

Ole Miss has one thing in mind for the Egg Bowl. Revenge. Last season ended on such a sour note for Bo Wallace and the Rebels. Fumbling the game away on the goal line. Having Dan Mullen get another whole year to gloat. Hearing all the preseason hype of a largely unproven Dak Prescott. These factors will fire Ole Miss up, and playing this one in Oxford certainly doesn’t hurt. I expect revenge to be had. Ole Miss shuts State down.

As I see it, the Rebels finish 10-2, second in the SEC West behind Alabama. Ole Miss has the breakout year they need, but fall short of Atlanta and the new College Football Playoff. Expect to see the Rebels in one of the four non-semifinal New Year’s Bowls (Orange, Cotton, Peach or Fiesta) depending on how things shake out with the new system. *

So there you have it, a season’s worth of insight and predictions. Take them with a grain of salt because we all know it only takes one game to change everything.

I’m excited to be back covering Ole Miss for MemphiSport.com. Check back in for full previews of the Boise State and Memphis match-ups as well as all of the SEC games.

*Disclaimer: The new playoff system is still confusing. But this is how I understand it: top four teams play in Sugar and Rose Bowls. Winners meet in Dallas for National Championship. Other conference obligations fill out Orange, Cotton, Peach, and Fiesta. Highest ranked available teams fill leftover slots in those four bowls. If I’m wrong about this, please feel free to correct me.

Warner Russell covers Ole Miss Football for MemphiSport. Read his non-sports stuff here. Follow him on Twitter @uncle_warny.

Egg Bowl 2013: Which Mississippi team will be giving thanks this year?

(Photo by Terry Davis)

(Photo by Terry Davis)

This year’s Egg Bowl between Ole Miss and Mississippi State, played for the first time in several years on Thanksgiving night, should be an entertaining game. No matter how good one team is or how bad the other needs a win, this rivalry always produces some crazy moments and this year’s game has some high stakes for both teams.

Mississippi State:

Mississippi State comes in to the game needing a win in the worst way. They won all the games throughout the season that they were “supposed to win,” but unfortunately for the Bulldogs, that puts them on the outside of the bowl landscape right now. If they were to pull an upset over the Rebels, they would get that much needed sixth win and a likely berth in the BBVA Compass Bowl.

Mississippi State has had a rough year at the quarterback position and as of right now plans to start freshman Damian Williams against Ole Miss. Starter Dak Prescott is out for the season, unless the Bulldogs make it to a bowl game, and backup Tyler Russell is listed as day-to-day, so he may see some action Thanksgiving night. But for Williams to be making his first start in such a big game for his team should make for a compelling storyline. First he is playing in a game that State fans look forward to, no matter what the implications are, and second the implications are enormous this year with that bowl berth on the line. Can the freshman handle the pressure? It helps that he is playing this game in Starkville, but I imagine he is feeling pretty nervous.

Another interesting story coming into this game is the regression of Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen. When Mullen got to Starkville in 2009, he immediately added some energy to a program that desperately needed some. Mullen had a mediocre first season but came out of nowhere to upset Ole Miss in that year’s Egg Bowl preventing the Rebels from gaining a berth in the prestigious Capital One Bowl. Despite not getting his team to their own bowl that year, beating Ole Miss instantly gave him some notoriety and he spent the next few years continuing to take it to the Rebs. But over the past two seasons, it has become clear that Mullen might not be capable of leading State much further than a middle tier bowl game in good years, and not getting them to a bowl at all in the bad years. If Mullen, after letting the Bulldogs get humiliated in last year’s Egg Bowl, can’t pull out a win over Hugh Freeze and company this year and get his team to a bowl, you might start hearing the words “hot seat” associated with his name.

Ole Miss:

The Rebels on the other hand come into the Egg Bowl looking to take the next step towards becoming a serious SEC contender. Last year’s surprising 7-6 season capped off by a BBVA Compass Bowl win was pretty great for Rebel fans, but most of those fans expected this year to be one when a jump was made into the upper section of the SEC West. If the Rebels were to lose the Egg Bowl, they would finish the year 7-5, a fine record, but a little disappointing given that many thought nine wins was a realistic goal.

Ole Miss, after a disappointing showing against Missouri are hoping to make a statement this week to the various bowl committees watching around the country. Bo Wallace should be back to 100% after struggling with a case of the flu last week. The Rebs will be healthy and ready to go into Starkville to get a win.

Hugh Freeze has his team bought in to his philosophy, and winning a second Egg Bowl in as many years will go a long way in the offseason in state recruiting battle. It would also help to get to eight regular season wins with a chance to get a ninth win in the bowl game. But are the Rebels going to feel they have enough to play for? Will Mississippi State’s must-win situation give them the upper hand this year? Last year, Ole Miss needed the Egg Bowl win to become bowl eligible and they got it. Will the same happen for Dan Mullen and the Bulldogs this year?

On paper, Ole Miss holds pretty much every advantage. More talent, better coaching, etc., but Mississippi State has home field advantage and a little more to play for. It could be a year for an upset, and crazier things have happened in this rivalry than a potential Mississippi State win this week. But honestly I think Hugh Freeze and the Rebels desperately want to keep the Bulldogs out of a bowl and give Dan Mullen his first losing season since 2009, so that’s why I’m going with Ole Miss to win on Thanksgiving night.

Prediction: Ole Miss – 31  Mississippi State – 27

Warner Russell is a regular contributor for MemphiSport and The Wise Guise. Read his non-sports stuff here. Follow him @uncle_warny.

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Ole Miss vs. Missouri: An evenly matched showdown in Mississippi

Photo by Terry Davis

Photo by Terry Davis

This Saturday’s matchup between No. 8 Missouri and No. 24 Ole Miss has all the makings of what could be a game for the ages. It’s being televised on ESPN, played under the lights, and has serious postseason implications for both teams. The stage is set.

MISSOURI:

Missouri has been the absolute surprise of this college football season. At 9-1 with victories over Vanderbilt, Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee and their lone loss coming to South Carolina in overtime, the Tigers have gone from being everyone’s pick to be in the bottom tier of the SEC East to controlling their own destiny as to whether they make it to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game or not.

What have the Tigers done so well this year that has put them into contention for an SEC East crown?

First off their defensive has been dominant. Their 35 sacks thus far is good for second in the nation, the offenses’ number of yards lost on those sacks is 208, putting them at 12th in the FBS, and their 17 interceptions rank seventh nationally. In short, these guys love to get to the quarterback and the constant pressure they are putting on whoever they might be trying to sack has forced some bad throws that have been picked off. The 20 points a game they are allowing is 20th overall, so yes, their defense has been top notch.

The quarterback play has also been surprising. After losing starter James Franklin for a few games, in the midst of what was a great season for him, backup and freshman Maty Mauk came in and showed that despite being young, he is fully capable of leading a high performing SEC offense. Franklin will be back this week, but Mauk will be ready to go if his number gets called.

Finally, Gary Pinkel continues to prove himself as a more than adequate head football coach. Many people undervalued Missouri when they came to the SEC, but in their final nine seasons in the Big XII, Pinkel led Mizzou to eight winning seasons. Naturally coming into the SEC last year was a tough move and there was plenty of pressure to perform immediately, but after a down first year, Mizzou has come out and played like they really do belong in the powerhouse SEC.

So why, despite all of this success Missouri has had, am I predicting that Ole Miss will upset them on Saturday in Oxford? Because honestly I think Ole Miss is a better team. Yes, it is undeniable that Missouri is good. A team that is 9-1 in the SEC is obviously a good team. But their marquee wins this season have come against teams that are underperforming by normal standards or are banged up with injuries. Florida has had a horrendous season, one so bad that head coach Will Muschamp is on the hot seat. They will likely not make a bowl, a first for them since 1986 (NCAA sanctions kept them out in 1990). Georgia, a team many predicted might be able to compete for a BCS Title has been ravaged by injuries and have since dropped completely out of the top 25. So really the only game Missouri has played against a quality top 25 opponent was their matchup against South Carolina, and when the pressure was on and BCS Title hopes very much alive for the Tigers, they crumbled.

OLE MISS:

Ole Miss on the other hand comes in at 7-3, a bowl bid already secured, and a second season for Coach Hugh Freeze that is already more successful than last year’s shocking (pleasantly so) 7-6 campaign. The Rebels’ three losses have come against no. 12 Texas A&M (8-2), no. 6 Auburn (10-1), and no. 1 Alabama (10-0). Save for the Alabama game, Ole Miss could have easily won those matchups if they had caught one or two lucky breaks. If Missouri plays the identical schedule Ole Miss has, they might be 9-1, who knows, but personally I think they would be at 7-3 or maybe worse.

Hugh Freeze has the Rebels on a roll right now. After the three straight losses in the middle of the season, Ole Miss has shown some serious moxie by coming out and reeling off four straight wins when they could have simply hung their heads and struggled to end the year. The Rebs have really been clicking on offense and defense over the past few games. Bo Wallace is playing some of the best football Ole Miss has seen from a QB in a long time, the Nkemdiche brothers are both healthy and making big plays, and the highly regarded  receiving corps is living up to its potential. On top of this, backup and jumbo package QB Barry Brunetti is exposing defenses with both his legs and his arm and the deep, deep backfield is capable of putting out four tailbacks that can get Freeze the yards he needs when he needs them.

Ole Miss is a Top 15 team in my opinion, but in reality Missouri is as well. I think this will be a tremendous matchup on Saturday. Missouri is playing for Atlanta. Ole Miss is playing for an upper tier bowl. Both teams want to win in the worst way, but the home field advantage and the talent level of Ole Miss gives them the advantage this week.

Prediction: Ole Miss – 31 Missouri – 24

Warner Russell 
is a regular contributor for MemphiSport and The Wise Guise. Read his non-sports stuff here. Follow him @uncle_warny.

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Rebels’ Road to the (Unknown) Bowl

Photo by JD Meredith

Photo by JD Meredith

Ole Miss is bowl eligible and has had a season very comparable to the one I predicted.

Here are some brief thoughts on how the season could pan out for Hugh Freeze and his Rebels in his second year running the show.

This week’s game is a given*.  Ole Miss should handle Troy with ease (Prediction: OM 42 – Troy 17) and sit at 7-3 with two SEC opponents left on the schedule. From there the season could go one of several ways.

The Most Likely (according to popular opinion):

Nobody could have predicted the season Missouri would have. If someone had told me in August that Mizzou would control their own destiny for the SEC title in November, I would have assumed they were crazy. But Gary Pinkel and the Tigers have been the surprise of the year. At 9-1, the Tigers have two tough games remaining, a road contest against Ole Miss and a home game against Johnny Football and Texas A&M.

If you agree with Vegas and rankings and the like, then Missouri will beat Ole Miss next weekend (6:45 on ESPN). Since most people do believe in that stuff, then a Rebel loss next weekend is the most likely outcome.

So, the Rebels will sit at 7-4 when they travel to Starkville on Thanksgiving Day for the Egg Bowl against Mississippi State. Dan Mullen is having a rough year in Starkville but the Bulldogs should be 5-6 heading into their final game. Unfortunately for Mississippi State, I don’t foresee them being able to beat the Rebels despite playing for bowl eligibility and playing at home.

In this scenario, the Rebels end the regular season with a record of 8-4, quite an improvement from last year’s 6-6 and a world away from 2011’s abysmal 2-10. Should this be the outcome for the season, I would imagine the Rebels end up in Nashville on December 30th for the Music City Bowl where they would face an up and coming Duke team, led by former Rebel head coach David Cutcliffe. I’m sure that other teams from the ACC could end up here, but the bowl execs would absolutely salivate at the automatic storyline they would have should these two teams face one another.

The Still Pretty Likely (in my opinion):

I don’t think Missouri is as good as their record indicates. And honestly, I think Mizzou goes to Oxford and gets beat by Ole Miss. Their key wins have been over a decent Vanderbilt team, an underwhelming Georgia team, and an ATROCIOUS Florida team. When they played South Carolina, at home no less, when the pressure was on, they just couldn’t get it done. The SEC East is having a crappy year, and when their top dog Mizzou loses in Oxford, this will become even more apparent.

After the win over Missouri, Ole Miss still goes in and beats Mississippi State and ends the season a very convincing 9-3 with their three losses being to Bama, Auburn, and Texas A&M (the three best SEC teams) and with wins over LSU and Missouri (two Top 10 teams at the time of the wins). This should be good enough to give them a Top 15 ranking heading into what would likely be a matchup with Minnesota in the Gator Bowl down in Jacksonville on New Year’s Day.

The Disaster (according to Rebel fans):

In the SEC, nothing is easy. It is not entirely inconceivable that Ole Miss could beat the tar out of Troy on Saturday and then promptly lose to both Missouri and Mississippi State. Obviously, Missouri is a good football team, and Dan Mullen would love to beat the Rebels to become bowl eligible (assuming he beats lowly Arkansas), so those two losses are possible and not too unlikely. Crazier things have happened.

If this were the case, there would be some extreme discontent in Oxford. While going 7-5 is nothing for the Rebel faithful to hang their heads over, it is still a far cry from 9-3. 7-5 means you’re a lower middling SEC bowl team. 9-3 makes you a contender.  5-3 in the SEC is something to get jacked up for. 3-5 in the SEC is disappointing given how the season could have turned out.

While this is not the scenario Hugh Freeze would like to see, it would still put him in a bowl and that would likely be the Liberty Bowl in Memphis on New Year’s Eve. Rebels around the Southeast would pack that place and likely forget about the season’s disappointment when they face whatever scrub team Conference USA trots out this year.

No matter what happens, the Rebels are going bowling for a second year in a row and still have some good momentum. It has become very apparent that Hugh Freeze is the right man for the job and that he is ready to make Ole Miss a contender. With Texas A&M likely losing Johnny Football and LSU looking like they might be ready to have a down year, could 2014 be the year Ole Miss is able to contend for that elusive Sugar Bowl berth? We will see, but for now the Rebs have three games left and want like crazy to make a statement by winning all three and then taking an (Unknown) Bowl trophy back to Oxford.

*Nothing is ever a given. See Jacksonville State, 2010.

Warner Russell is a regular contributor for MemphiSport and The Wise Guise. Read his non-sports stuff here. Follow him @uncle_warny.

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Ole Miss vs. Arkansas: Rebels look to become bowl eligible

The Ole Miss Rebels opened as a 17.5 point favorite for this week’s matchup against the Arkansas Razorbacks, which is quite a number for an SEC contest, and one that Ole Miss probably hasn’t seen over an SEC foe in many years. Don’t expect the game to be a blowout though.

Arkansas:

Arkansas logoArkansas, under new coach Bret Bielema, is having a rough year. At 3-6 and on a six game losing streak, the Razorbacks are playing for pride at this point. Their only hope of getting to a bowl would be to win the last three games of the season, at Ole Miss, vs. Mississippi State, and at LSU. I just don’t see that happening for the first year coach and his squad. But sometimes a team playing for pride, as Arkansas is, is one that can be very dangerous. At this point, the Hogs have little to lose. Nobody expects them to win the next three or even one of the next three, so these players have no reason not to leave everything on the field and play with some reckless abandon.

Next year, once Bielema gets another class of his own players on campus, has potential to be much better for Arkansas. His rough, bruise it up the middle style will be much more effective with the right players. Bobby Petrino’s leftovers are not the right players, so it’s understandable this year has been less than stellar for the Razorbacks. Alex Collins has the makings of a special player, so look out for him in 2014.

Ole Miss:

ole misslogoOle Miss is riding some momentum from their shocking last second win over LSU and their thrashing of Idaho. After a week off, which came at just the right time, Ole Miss appears to have its players healthy and will be trotting some key guys back on the field after dealing with injury problems the past few games. Look for Robert Nkemdiche (hamstring) to come back ready to play and show why he was the number one recruit in the nation. Also returning will be Serederius Bryant (concussion) and big time playmaker Jeff Scott (thigh).

This is a big game for the Rebels. A win gets them bowl eligible for the second year in a row and goes a long way for a late season surge to finish the year strong. A big game at home against a surprisingly successful Mizzou looms for the Rebels in two weeks and boy would Hugh Freeze like to go into that contest at 7-3. Beat Arkansas this week, and that’s sure to happen. (Ole Miss has Troy at home next week.)

Like I mentioned before, I don’t think that Ole Miss should be favored by 17.5. Arkansas is struggling, but they are still an SEC opponent, and anything can happen on any given Saturday in the SEC. However, I do think that Ole Miss is just too talented to lose this game. I expect running back Jeff Scott and his now broken-in backups Jaylen Walton, I’Tavius Mathers, and Mark Dodson to all have some success against the Razorback defense. Ole Miss will run the ball with ease opening up some good opportunities for Bo Wallace to use play-action calls for downfield passing.

Ole Miss is going to win the game; the final score will be determined by how locked in and focused their defense can be while seeing the offense win the game for them. If the defense decides it wants to limit Arkansas even though the Rebel offense is making it an easy win, then you very well could see a blowout. If the defense is lax this weekend, the game could be closer than Ole Miss fans think it will be.

Prediction: Ole Miss 42 – Arkansas 28

Warner Russell is a regular contributor for MemphiSport and The Wise Guise. Read his non-sports stuff here. Follow him @uncle_warny.

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VIDEO: Ole Miss Linemen Can’t Find Coach Freeze

Coach Hugh Freeze was in need of a Gatorade shower after Ole Miss upset LSU on Saturday night in Oxford, but a pair of Rebel linemen couldn’t find him.

Watch:

Email: kevin@memphisport.com
Twitter: @cerrito

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