Tide, Turned: What Ole Miss's upset of Alabama tells us
This story appears in the Sept. 28, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze kicked his brown leather boots onto his desk on Sunday afternoon and scrolled through his text messages until he found one from country singer Eric Church. Freeze has the numbers of some of Music Row's top draws in his phone, but it was Church who picked against the Rebels last Saturday morning and then spent the wee hours on Sunday celebrating with them in their locker room beneath Alabama's Bryant-Denny Stadium. Church led the players in a Hotty Toddy cheer, and apparently the flim flams, bim bams and by damns had gotten him excited and …
"He said he's sorry for dropping that f-bomb," Freeze said, chuckling.
Church was only playing the percentages when he chose the Crimson Tide during ESPN's College GameDay. While the Rebels had won the meeting last October in Oxford, they hadn't had a victory at Tuscaloosa since 1988 and, in the 120‑year history of the series, had never taken two straight. But in the Ole Miss locker room, at least, the optimism was palpable this time. Before he sent his players out on the field against the nation's No. 2 team, Freeze gave one of his shortest pregame speeches. "You can be just who you are," he told his team, "and it can be good enough."
There was a hint of magic in the air last season when the Crimson Tide came to Vaught‑Hemingway Stadium. Pop star Katy Perry visited GameDay (and picked the Rebels, of course). The Grove, the tailgating mecca in the center of campus, buzzed with hope. Freeze remembers how all the questions began. What if … ? Can we … ? The answers turned out to be yes. Young men in pants with wild prints and young women in sundresses descended a six-foot wall, tore down the goalposts and marched them out of the stadium after the 23–17 upset. The story each would tell would probably be better than the game.
There was no fairy dust needed at Bryant-Denny last Saturday night, only an Ole Miss team that took a three-hour bus ride, then went toe-to-toe for four-plus hours more against the SEC juggernaut that has won three national titles since coach Nick Saban arrived in 2007. Can we? was suddenly We can. The Rebels were hardly dominant in a 43–37 win that lifted them to 3–0 and No. 3 in the nation, up from 15th. They made dozens of mistakes. Open receivers were overlooked. Blocks were missed. Defenders weren't conditioned to handle the 100 plays Alabama ran and spent most of the second half gasping as 6' 3", 242-pound junior tailback Derrick Henry battered at their lead, helping the Tide pile up 20 fourth-quarter points.
Despite those lapses Ole Miss got the win. That, more than anything, made the 45-year-old Freeze smile on Sunday. Preparing to meet with his team and dissect the Alabama game, he rubbed his hands together in anticipation of the times when he could pause, rewind and show yet another error. Sure, his Rebels had earned just their second victory in Tuscaloosa, but there were still so many ways they could improve.
This is why Freeze became, in the words of former Ole Miss assistant Wes McGriff, an "elephant hunter" on the recruiting trail after taking the job in December 2011. This is why receiver Laquon Treadwell, defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil and a host of other top recruits signed in '13. They wanted to make winning those What if? games routine. They wanted to topple Alabama not because the stars aligned in the sky, but rather on the line of scrimmage. "I don't have to design these fantastic pass routes," Freeze says. "You just try to do something to get a guy in a one-on-one, and you feel like he's going to win it 70% of the time." The Rebels' final touchdown—the 6' 2" Treadwell leaping to grab the ball above the head of cornerback Cyrus Jones and take it into the end zone—was the embodiment of Freeze's recruiting philosophy: Win enough one-on-one matchups and you'll win the game. "We don't have to bank on a bunch of crazy things happening," Freeze says. "We're good enough to go there and win. So it definitely felt different."
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Of course, it didn't hurt to have one crazy thing happen. Last season the Rebels suffered perhaps the cruelest twist of fate when Treadwell broke his left leg just before crossing the goal line, fumbling what would have been the game-winning touchdown against No. 4 Auburn on Nov. 1. Had the ball broken the plane, they would have won the SEC West title and controlled their playoff destiny. Instead, the injury cast a pall over the rest of the season. The scales may have been balanced, though, last Saturday, when sheer dumb luck turned a potential disaster into a touchdown.
Early in the second half, on a third-and-one from the Ole Miss 34, junior quarterback Chad Kelly figured that Treadwell would be covered one-on-one out wide, where a broken tackle would mean big yardage. But Kelly did not figure that center Robert Conyers would fire a high snap, which bounced off Kelly's right hand and popped up into the air. Kelly caught the ball, turned and threw off one foot toward Treadwell—just as linebackers Reuben Foster and Reggie Ragland buried him. Stuck under 492 pounds of future NFL talent, Kelly didn't see his pass ricochet three yards off the helmet of Minkah Fitzpatrick, one of the two cornerbacks converging on Treadwell, and into the hands of receiver Quincy Adeboyejo, who pulled it in tight and sprinted into the end zone.
After he rose from the turf, Kelly did see Freeze beckon with a bent finger. Instead of celebrating the touchdown that made it 24–10, the quarterback went to the sideline. "Dude, congratulations," Freeze told Kelly. "But let's don't do that again." Kelly could only look up and offer his gratitude. "Thank you, God," Kelly recalls thinking. "Thank you, Grandma."
Besides never blindly throwing into double coverage again, Kelly & Co. have so many other tweaks to make. That is the key difference from last year, when Ole Miss played its best game to beat Alabama, then fell apart three weeks later at LSU. The Tigers, who visit on Nov. 21, will probably still be riding Leonard Fournette, the 6' 1", 230-pound sophomore who bludgeoned Auburn for 228 yards and three touchdowns on 19 carries last Saturday in a 45–21 win. Nkemdiche and the rest of the defensive line must get in better shape to handle a back who is as powerful as Henry but with a burst usually reserved for much smaller men. Freeze pledged to help Nkemdiche, who wrecked Alabama's offense for three quarters but struggled through the fourth. In the Rebels' first two wins he had played a total of 40 snaps; he was on the field for 78 last Saturday night.
The Ole Miss offensive line will have to retool even more quickly: Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett comes to Oxford on Oct. 24. The 6' 5", 262-pound Garrett is built like a comic book superhero and moves just about as quickly; the Aggies' early opponents have resorted to holding him and praying the officials don't throw a flag. And by the time No. 14 A&M arrives, the Rebels might know the fate of Tunsil, their All‑SEC left tackle. The 6' 5", 305-pound junior has missed the first three games while the NCAA investigates whether he received benefits in violation of NCAA rules.
On Saturday, Fahn Cooper, who moved from right to left tackle to replace Tunsil, held his own against the country's best front seven. Offensive line coach Matt Luke's biggest concern was at right guard, where starter Justin Bell went down with a right-ankle injury in the first quarter and backup Rod Taylor injured his shoulder in the fourth. Jordan Sims, a redshirt freshman from nearby Homewood, Ala., played his first road game and his first conference game in front of 101,821 Tide fans. Late in the fourth quarter Luke couldn't afford to worry that he had a true freshman (left guard Javon Patterson) and two redshirt freshmen (Sims and right tackle Sean Rawlings) trying to salt away the game against a defensive line that's usually unyielding on between-the-tackles runs. "I just wanted to get the first down," Luke says.
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Afterward, Luke had time to savor the fact that his unit helped beat Alabama without its top player. A lifelong Ole Miss fan, he has a different perspective on the win. He grew up in Gulfport, Miss. Luke's father, Tommy, played defensive back for the Rebels in the 1960s. Matt's brother, Tom, was a Rebels quarterback from 1989 to '91. Matt played center for Ole Miss in the late '90s. "Looking at it as a coach, there's so much we can build for this season," Luke says. "You don't want to think about history and all that stuff. You just want to think about getting better for next week. But the fan in me is so proud to bring this to Rebel Nation, to put a product on the field that they're proud of."
Luke the coach and Luke the fan stood in that locker room last Saturday night as the Rebels rocked out to one of Church's hits. The song was "The Outsiders," but they had just played as if they were already members of the SEC's—and possibly the nation's—upper crust.