Sugar Bowl triumph raises a familiar question: Can Ole Miss take next step?
In the early morning hours of Jan. 1, 2015, Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze faced reporters on the ground floor of the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Freeze’s Rebels had just gotten their tails kicked in an embarrassing 42–3 loss to TCU. Afterward the coach described how he’d been forced to console his seniors in the locker room. A group of players instrumental in turning around the Ole Miss program had watched their college careers come to a halt in a soul-crushing rout. “To see them hurt like they’re hurting today is not much fun,” Freeze said. “It’s not enjoyable at all.”
One year later, Freeze likely witnessed a different reaction when he entered the locker room in New Orleans. On Friday, No. 12 Ole Miss exorcized its Peach Bowl demons with a commanding 48–20 win over No. 15 Oklahoma State in the Sugar Bowl. The victory notched the Rebels’ first 10-win season under Freeze, and they looked relatively unstoppable in doing so.
But the celebration surrounding a Sugar Bowl win might overshadow a lingering question of expectations for Ole Miss. There’s no doubt the Rebels have returned to the throne as a perennial power in the SEC West under Freeze. During the last two seasons, they’ve won a combined 19 games, including consecutive nine-win regular seasons for the first time since 1962. They’ve beaten Alabama, the eventual SEC champions, in both years. But Ole Miss has also lost seven games and hasn’t played for the conference championship in that span.
By now we all know Ole Miss can upset conference contenders and shine on the biggest stages—like, say, in the Sugar Bowl. So given that sterling reputation, at what point should we expect Freeze and company to take the next step?
On Friday the Rebels wasted no time in looking like the more dangerous team in the Superdome. A 31-yard touchdown pass from Chad Kelly to Cody Core with 20 seconds left in the first quarter sparked a 24–0 run that led to a 34–6 halftime lead for Ole Miss. At the break the Rebels’ offense was humming, averaging 9.1 yards per play behind Kelly’s 256 passing yards and three touchdowns. Oklahoma State, meanwhile, managed just 3.8 yards per play at halftime, including -1 rushing yards.
Ole Miss’s stirring first half was so complete that it included an unexpected contribution from vaunted offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil. Late in the second quarter, as the Rebels sought to tack on a last-second touchdown, Kelly took a snap on first-and-goal from the two-yard line and rolled right, taking Oklahoma State’s entire defense with him. Except Kelly didn’t look downfield; instead he hurled a lateral to a sneaking Tunsil on the left side. The 6'5", 300-pound lineman—an eligible receiver on the play—rumbled in for an entertaining two-yard score, adding insult to injury for the reeling Cowboys.
After the game ESPN’s Shannon Spake asked Kelly for the name of that play. “‘Laremy, go score!’ That’s what it’s called,” Kelly said with a laugh.
The Rebels kept their feet on the gas in the second half. They recovered an Oklahoma State muffed punt midway through the third quarter and turned it into a 48-yard touchdown run from Jordan Wilkins two plays later. That gave Ole Miss a cushy 41–6 lead. Later quarterback Mason Rudolph and the Cowboys closed the deficit with two touchdowns in the final 16 minutes, but the rally came too late. Ole Miss was the new Sugar Bowl champion.
With Kelly’s arm draped over his shoulder, Freeze basked in the glory of the Superdome during his postgame interview on ESPN. “We just won the Sugar Bowl, you know?” the glowing coach said, shaking his head in disbelief. This latest step for Ole Miss is a major one, cementing just its second 10-win season in 44 years. In 2011, a mere four seasons ago, the Rebels were coming off a dismal 2–10 campaign under Houston Nutt, who was eventually fired in favor of Freeze. Now Ole Miss has morphed back into the national championship contender that resided in Oxford nearly a half-century ago.
But contending for titles and winning them are two different tasks, and so far the Rebels have only flirted with greatness. In 2014 they started the year 7–0 before losing four of their last six games, including that well-documented setback against TCU in the Peach Bowl. This season Ole Miss followed its 43–37 win at Alabama on Sept. 19—the program’s first back-to-back wins over the Crimson Tide ever—by laying an egg in a 38–10 loss at Florida two weeks later.
A nonconference loss to Memphis in October didn’t help the Rebels’ playoff case, but they still controlled their mathematical destiny in the SEC West by virtue of their win over Alabama. That’s why the moment that will continue to haunt Ole Miss fans took place against Arkansas on Nov. 7. The Hogs upended the Rebels 53–52 only after converting a wild fourth-and-25 that kept their game-winning overtime drive alive. Had Ole Miss made a stop on that single play, it would have earned a berth in the SEC title game for the first time under Freeze.
That’s why Ole Miss fans must feel a dash of frustration amid the euphoria of a Sugar Bowl victory. In college football, the margin of error can be so frighteningly slim. For a coach, a few plays can spell the difference between a conference championship and unemployment. Freeze is certainly closer to the former, which is why Rebel fans shouldn’t feel disappointed by the program’s current place in the SEC hierarchy. But those same fans will soon want more, if they don’t already. The time is coming when Ole Miss will have to deliver.
On Friday Freeze preferred to put things in perspective. His current group of seniors helped Ole Miss win 34 games over the last four seasons. Even so, results like last year’s loss to TCU still stick with Freeze, a testament to what his older Rebels have overcome in order to achieve success. Now they’re Sugar Bowl champions. “Those seniors get to go out with that,” Freeze told ESPN after the game. “That’s kinda folklore stuff.”
Perhaps Freeze is right. But if he hopes to earn a permanent spot in Ole Miss lore, the coach and his program must eventually take that next step.