In retrospect, the victory was impressive but not overly important. When Ole Miss beat visiting Auburn 41-20 last October at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, quarterback Bo Wallace accounted for four touchdowns -- including one receiving -- in his seventh career start. The Rebels' offense rolled for 451 total yards, while their defense allowed only one first down to the hapless Tigers (who were 1-4 at the time) in their final five possessions. Ole Miss put on a good show, but the Rebels were hardly an SEC title contender -- the win improved their record to only 4-3.
In the bigger picture, however, the victory over Auburn was momentous. It was Ole Miss’ first victory over an SEC team in 16 tries, after all, and it also was the first tangible evidence that the rebuilding efforts of first-year coach Hugh Freeze were having some effect. “Obviously words really cannot describe the feeling in that locker room and in the stadium,” Freeze told reporters that night. “For the better part of two and a half years the Rebel fans and students and players and administration have had to put up with some disappointing times. We’re not there yet, nor do we think we are, but today we were.”
As the 21st-ranked Rebels prepare to face No. 1 Alabama in Tuscaloosa on Saturday, times aren’t nearly as disappointing in Oxford. Ole Miss is 3-0 for the first time since 1989, and is seeking its first 4-0 start since 1970. Its national ranking is the program’s highest since it finished the 2009 season ranked 20th. But more importantly, there’s a feeling of resurgence and belief around the Rebels, who, before they went 7-6 last fall, had finished above .500 only twice since '04.
Ole Miss hired Freeze in December 2011 to replace Houston Nutt, whose Rebels had just finished 2-10 and 0-8 in the SEC. First on Freeze’s priority list was addressing the team culture. The Rebels hadn’t won an SEC title in 50 years, and he felt it was important that his players start believing in themselves. “Without question, personal accountability,” Freeze says now. “Being accountable to yourself and to your teammates and staff and this university. Doing the little things right. It all starts there. If you don’t have personal accountability and those things, it would be difficult to sustain any level of success.”
Freeze had spent three seasons as an assistant on Ed Orgeron’s Ole Miss staff before Orgeron was fired in 2007. Even though Freeze had only a single season of head coaching experience at the FBS level (at Arkansas State in 2011), the Mississippi native was thoroughly acquainted with Ole Miss’ history and its fan base.
But Freeze also knew that the roster he inherited needed to subscribe to the program’s direction. “Second thing I would say [that’s important] is buying in,” Freeze said. “Probably 85 percent of the guys [buying in] is now necessary to achieve the maximum success.” Last season's victory over Auburn was a turning point in that respect. In the weeks that followed, the Rebels beat Arkansas 30-27 in Little Rock, lost by six (41-35) to No. 6 LSU in Death Valley and sank rival Mississippi State 41-24 in the regular-season finale. Ole Miss closed out the 2012 season with a 38-17 win over Pitt in the BBVA Compass Bowl.
It was after the bowl victory that Freeze put his foot to the gas pedal on recruiting. His program needed to compete with the conference’s elite for top prospects, and he made sure that his new assistants did not shy away from premier high school talent. As SI.com’s Andy Staples reported last February, Freeze and his assistants identified 12 highly ranked players and put a full-court press on the entire group. On Jan. 25 the Rebels' most sought-after prospects made an official visit to Oxford, where Freeze delivered his pitch. Ole Miss subsequently landed the highest-ranked class in school history -- No. 7 according to Rivals.com -- which included three five-star prospects: WR Laquan Treadwell, OL Laremy Tunsil and DE Robert Nkemdiche, the country’s top recruit.
The Rebels may have had a young foundation in place this fall, but few expected them to make much noise. Nevertheless, the Ole Miss offense looked dangerous in a wild 39-35 win at Vanderbilt on Aug. 29. After beating Southeast Missouri State 31-13 the next week, the Rebels entered the top 25 for the first time in three seasons. They then traveled to Austin to play Texas -- a team that beat Ole Miss by 35 in Oxford last season -- and walloped the reeling Longhorns 44-23. Freeze’s program suddenly looked like a wild card in the SEC West, especially on offense, where the Rebels rank fourth in the SEC in total offense (490 yards per game) and sixth in scoring (38 points per game).
The next step for Ole Miss is to beat an elite team, and its place in the conference will become much clearer in the coming three weeks. After facing the Crimson Tide, the Rebels travel to Auburn before playing host to tenth-ranked Texas A&M and No. 6 LSU. Alabama has yet to be as dominant as it has in the recent past -- though the Tide survived a shootout with the Aggies in Week 3, 'Bama stumbled during wins over Virginia Tech and Colorado State. The Crimson Tide's apparent vulnerability should help hype up a crowd on Saturday that will be cheering for an Ole Miss team on the rise. “I do recognize that once we get there to the stadium Saturday, emotions will be a bit higher than they might be at times,” Freeze said during the SEC’s weekly teleconference.
Regardless of Saturday’s outcome, optimism is high for the Rebels. Folks in Oxford believe a sleeping giant has been awakened, and thanks to a few key steps taken by Freeze along the way, it might not be long before a game against Alabama could decide the SEC West.
“The support we’re getting from our administration and our athletic director, Ross Bjork, is phenomenal,” Freeze said. “They get it. They understand what it takes to compete at a high level in this conference.
“One of those things is expansion and growth, supporting your athletes with the best possible things you can give them. Our locker room is phenomenal. One website had it top-five in the country. When you look at our new recruiting area, new team room, new dining room, new weight room, all of those things are certainly adding to the momentum.”
The other big ones
• No. 6 LSU at No. 9 Georgia: A revitalized Zach Mettenberger has been the best quarterback on the field for all four of the Tigers' victories. He’ll face his toughest test on Saturday against Bulldogs QB Aaron Murray, whose total passing yards (1,040) nearly mirror Mettenberger's (1,026). But the key may be one of the defenses: The two teams combine to score 83.6 points per game.
• No. 14 Oklahoma at No. 22 Notre Dame: Did you know that in 10 all-time meetings with the Fighting Irish, the Sooners have won only a single game -- and that was way back in 1956? Oklahoma fell to Notre Dame 30-13 last season in Norman, and Sooners quarterback Blake Bell might have to repeat his latest performance (413 passing yards, four touchdowns vs. Tulsa) his team to emerge with a victory in South Bend.
• No. 23 Wisconsin at No. 4 Ohio State: What do we know about these two teams? Primarily that the Buckeyes have two talented quarterbacks (Kenny Guiton, Braxton Miller) and the Badgers have three talented running backs (Melvin Gordon, James White, Corey Clement). Wisconsin might get more out of its backfield package, but Ohio State only allows 79.75 rushing yards per game. Meanwhile, a banged-up Miller will be an intriguing wrinkle in this game.
Fun with numbers
• How many passing yards will Derek Carr put up? Fresno State’s quarterback ranks in the top-15 in the country in passing yards (1,121), completion percentage (68.9) and touchdowns (12). He threw for more than 450 yards in each of the Bulldogs two best wins this season, against Rutgers and Boise State. Don’t expect a winless Hawaii team to pose much of a threat.
• How much offense can Kentucky manage vs. Florida’s defense? The Gators don’t quite know what they’re getting yet from Tyler Murphy at quarterback, but Florida knows what it has on defense. Will Muschamp’s crew allows only 212 yards per game and had six takeaways in the win over Tennessee last week. Also, it seems that Wildcats starting quarterback Maxwell Smith is nursing an injured shoulder. That's not good for Kentucky.
• How many receiving yards can Paul Richardson haul in? Colorado has only played two games this season, but the Buffaloes are 2-0 thanks in part to Richardson’s ability on the outside -- he had more than 200 yards receiving and two touchdowns in both games. Colorado’s opponent this weekend, Oregon State, ranks 107th in the country in passing defense.
Matchups to watch
• Arkansas RBs vs. Texas A&M front seven: The Aggies were actually outgained on the ground in three of the season’s first four games. Yes, that includes matchups with Rice (306 to 202 yards) and Sam Houston State (240 to 214). The Razorbacks boast a couple of legitimate rushing weapons of their own in Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams, who have combined for 899 yards on the ground.
• Jared Goff vs. Oregon pass-rush: Cal's freshman quarterback is the country’s leader in total offense with 429.7 yards per game. But with all the hype surrounding the Ducks’ high-octane offense, their sound defense often gets ignored. Oregon has allowed only a single passing touchdown and is giving up just 4.51 yards per throw. Then again, the quarterbacks at Nicholls State, Virginia and Tennessee aren’t putting up numbers like Goff has.
• David Shaw vs. Mike Leach: It was one year ago this week that eighth-ranked Stanford was upset by unranked Washington in Seattle. Now the No. 5 Cardinal return to the Pacific Northwest to face a Washington State team that has already won as many games (three) as it did all of last season. With David Shaw’s smarts and Mike Leach’s unpredictability, perhaps there’s a surprise in store at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field.
• Minnesota’s unbeaten record: Is everyone really on board with the Gophers being 4-0? Minnesota’s success is a bit deceiving, as it has played one of the country’s softer schedules. Iowa might not be a Big Ten power this season, but the Gophers were 4-0 last year when they lost 31-13 to the Hawkeyes and went on to finish 2-6 in the Big Ten.
• USC on the road: The Trojans haven’t ventured away from Los Angeles since Week 1, when they overcame a slow start to win at Hawaii. Now Lane Kiffin’s uncertain offense must face the Sun Devils’ defense in Tempe. But even amid all the struggles, USC’s defense has been impressive. The unit could pose problems for Arizona State on third down: The Sun Devils' offense has converted 42 percent of third down opportunities, while the Trojans' D has allowed opponents to convert a mere 28 percent.
• Washington’s offense: Quarterback Keith Price and running back Bishop Sankey have the Huskies humming -- they average 629 total yards per game, sixth in the country. Washington has reeled off at least 500 yards of offense in three straight games, a first for the program. If the Huskies are unable to move the ball against a defense like Arizona’s, which ranks 29th in FBS, that doesn’t bode well for them -- the next two defenses on UW’s schedule are Stanford and Oregon.
No. 12 South Carolina at UCF: The Knights aren’t scared of an FBS opponent coming to town. Two weeks ago, UCF notched the program’s first win over a Big Ten team by stunning Penn State 34-31 in Happy Valley. The Knights boast a dynamic quarterback in Blake Bortles, who’s thrown for seven touchdowns with only one interception, and is completing 71.4 percent of his passes. UCF has scored at least 30 points in its first three games for the first time in team history. Oh, and things didn’t go well for the last ranked team that visited Orlando: The Knights upended No. 13 Houston 37-32 on Nov. 14, 2009. STAPLES: UCF ready for national stage; more Walkthrough