(AP) - During the summer it looked like Mississippi's game against Memphis would be little more than a speed bump for the Rebels before a five-game stretch against SEC teams to end the season.
That's not the case anymore.
Thirteenth-ranked Ole Miss (5-1) travels to face Memphis (5-0) on Saturday in a surprisingly intriguing nonconference matchup. The Tigers haven't lost in a calendar year, winning 12 straight thanks to a stellar offense led by quarterback Paxton Lynch.
Now it's their chance to knock off a regional rival and a team from the SEC. The two schools are about an hour's drive apart and the connections run deep.
Ole Miss running back Jordan Wilkins is among 11 players on the roster from the Memphis area. He said he knows several Tigers and has even had to engage in a little trash talk with his girlfriend, a cheerleader at the school.
Wilkins said Memphis' elevated status in the college football world only adds to the excitement.
''It's just natural that it hypes you up a little more when the game is competitive,'' Wilkins said.
It's also familiar territory for Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, who coached at a high school in Memphis for about a decade before a quick rise through the college coaching profession.
Freeze had nothing but praise for Lynch and fourth-year coach Justin Fuente, who is only 39 years old and viewed as one of the rising stars in the profession. Ole Miss beat Memphis 24-3 last Sept. 27 in Oxford.
''It's a quality, quality football team and they're playing with great confidence,'' Freeze said. ''And they have what a lot of us desire in a really sound, good quarterback. He's one of the better ones I've seen on film.''
Memphis was off last weekend, giving the Tigers nearly two weeks to prepare for Saturday's game. In some ways, Ole Miss had an off weekend too, breezing past New Mexico State 52-3 while resting several starters who were nursing nagging injuries.
Memphis hasn't had a problem scoring this season. The Tigers rank fourth nationally with 47.8 points per game - just ahead of Mississippi at 46.8.
The problem is their schedule hasn't exactly included college football's finest. A win over the Rebels would give Memphis a signature moment - and the national attention - it craves.
''Honestly, every week we're trying to prove something,'' Memphis receiver Phillip Mayhue said. ''We're just trying to prove that we're basically here. We're not a slouch. We worked hard and we're going to prove each and every week that hard work pays off.''
The game figures to be a difficult test for the revamped Ole Miss secondary. The Rebels shuffled players at several positions since star safety Tony Conner went down with a knee injury three weeks ago.
The newest lineup was fine against New Mexico State, but the Aggies didn't have anything near the firepower that the Tigers possess.
''All five of us mesh pretty well back there,'' Ole Miss safety Mike Hilton said. ''We have more experience, more speed out there now. We miss Tony, he was a big piece, but with the guys we have in place we are not losing a step.''
The Rebels bounced back last Saturday after a sobering 38-10 loss to then-No. 25 Florida the previous week, but sloppy moments - including three turnovers - and much tougher games coming up have them feeling anything but good about themselves going into this matchup.
''We can get so much better,'' receiver Laquon Treadwell said.
Mississippi's Chad Kelly went 24 of 33 for a career-high 384 yards, three TDs and one INT last week. Treadwell also set a career high with 136 yards on eight catches, along with two scores.
Though the teams' high-scoring ways and the Tigers' perfect record have elevated the interest in this matchup, the Rebels have won six straight in the series, the past three coming by an average of 23.0 points.
Treadwell caught a 63-yard pass to open the scoring in the most recent meeting and added another touchdown reception to provide the final margin, finishing with five catches for 123 yards.