Ole Miss has spent plenty of time at or near the bottom of the SEC West since 2010. Suddenly, in just the third season under coach Hugh Freeze, the Rebels are playing in a New Year’s Six bowl. “It’s crazy, man,” Ole Miss linebacker Serderius Bryant said this week. “From going 2-10 ( in ’11), to maybe going 10-3. If we win this game, we’re going to be 10-3 and that would be one of the few times in Ole Miss history this team has won 10 games. It’s crazy.”
To reach double-digit wins, Bryant and No. 9 Ole Miss must get by No. 3 TCU and its vastly improved offense in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl on Dec. 31. Fans of X’s and O’s won’t be disappointed: The Horned Frogs have put up 46.8 points per game this season, second nationally, while the Rebels’ stout defense is allowing an FBS-best 13.8 points per game.
Of the New Year’s Six bowls, this matchup may be the most surprising relative to preseason expectations as few predicted Ole Miss and TCU to contend in the SEC and Big 12, respectively. Both programs spent time among the College Football Playoff’s top four teams at different points in the season. After a regular season of surpassing expectations, Freeze and TCU coach Gary Patterson have proven they have what it takes to lead power programs.
Points of interest
1. Does TCU even want to be here? Five days before the final College Football Playoff rankings were unveiled, TCU sat at No. 3 in the selection committee’s top 25. The Horned Frogs then whipped Iowa State, 55-3, on Championship Saturday. But rather than punching their playoff tickets, the Big 12 co-champions dropped to No. 6 while Big Ten champion Ohio State slid into the semifinal field. Now TCU players who expected to compete for a championship are spending the New Year in Atlanta.
Despite the disappointment, the Horned Frogs’ coach isn’t worried about a lack of motivation on his roster. “This bowl game is not about ending this year, it’s about starting next year,” Patterson said. “That’s what everyone remembers. They remember the bowl game. You go to win. That’s all you play for.”
2. Ole Miss secondary vs. Trevone Bokyin: In 2013 Trevone Boykin threw as many interceptions (7) as touchdowns while splitting time with Casey Pachall as TCU’s starting quarterback. This season Boykin was one of the country’s most improved players as he guided the Frogs’ passing attack, which ranks seventh in the country with 332.8 yards per game. Boykin’s performance earned him a fourth-place finish in Heisman Trophy voting, and he snagged more first-place votes than any player outside of the three finalists.
But Boykin hasn’t faced a challenge quite like Ole Miss’ secondary. The Rebels boast a top-20 defense in yards allowed per attempt (6.2), passing efficiency against (106.98) and interceptions (19). Boykin has completed better than 60 percent of his passes on seven occasions, and he hasn’t thrown more than one interception in a game this season. But TCU’s offense will struggle if Ole Miss can disrupt his rhythm with receivers Josh Doctson and Kolby Listenbee.
3. Ole Miss running game: It’s no secret the Rebels’ offense leaned heavily on the pass in 2014. With a committee approach to the running game, four Ole Miss players reeled off at least 249 rushing yards this season as Jaylen Walton (583 yards, five touchdowns) led the effort. The offense managed just 4.58 yards per carry this year, 51st in the nation, and its 167.7 yards per game on the ground ranked ninth in the SEC.
Now Walton and Ole Miss’ backs must handle TCU’s strong defensive front. The Horned Frogs are one of six FBS teams allowing less than three yards per carry (2.98). The Rebels can score points, but not if quarterback Bo Wallace is forcing throws. That’s why Ole Miss needs to keep the Frogs honest with a running game, and TCU knows that. “Everybody has to do their job,” TCU defensive tackle Chucky Hunter said. “Everybody has to worry about what they have to do. Just keep everybody in front of you. That's the most important thing.”
Which Bo Wallace shows up? The dichotomy between Good Bo and Bad Bo has largely defined Ole Miss’ season. The senior quarterback can be as effective as any passer in the SEC, but he can also be just as destructive. In a 10-7 loss at LSU on Oct. 25, Wallace completed just 42 percent of his throws, and his late interception gift-wrapped the win for the Tigers. He also threw two picks and zero touchdowns in a 30-0 loss at Arkansas on Nov. 22. The Rebels need Good Bo to step up in the Georgia Dome.
Ole Miss CB Senquez Golson: The Rebels’ ball-hawking cornerback has been one of the most disruptive players in college football. His nine interceptions rank second among all FBS players, and he grabbed the game-sealing pick off Alabama quarterback Blake Sims in Ole Miss’ 23-17 upset of the Crimson Tide on Oct. 4. Boykin, who has tossed seven interceptions this year, should probably avoid throwing in Golson’s direction when possible.
197.4 , 21.7: TCU boasts the most improved offense in the country. The Horned Frogs have jumped 197.4 yards per game and 21.7 points per game from their 2013 production, the biggest improvements of any FBS team. Orchestrated by first-year coordinators Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie, TCU’s 21.7 points-per-game improvement would be the largest by any team since Northwestern’s 24 points-per-game jump between 1999 and 2000.
Ole Miss had its championship hopes dashed by early November. TCU’s sights were set on a semifinal matchup heading into the selection show. That means the Horned Frogs are likely still reeling from the effects of a playoff snub. Now they’ll face the country’s stingiest scoring defense. Expect the Rebels to pressure Boykin into enough mistakes to give their own offense a chance to shine. Wallace will end his mercurial career on a high note against TCU’s susceptible pass defense (88th nationally).
Ole Miss 30, TCU 21