David Stephenson
October 24, 2016

OXFORD, Miss. (AP) Mississippi was home to some of the best college football teams in America just two years ago.

These days the Magnolia State is the locale for unrealized expectations, frustrating losses and the bottom of the Southeastern Conference Western Division.

Now Ole Miss (3-4, 1-3 SEC) and Mississippi State (2-5, 1-3) are trying to figure out a way to salvage something from what's quickly turning into a forgettable season for both programs.

Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze says his program hasn't given up despite two straight losses, including Saturday's 38-21 setback to LSU that knocked the Rebels out of the national rankings for the first time season.

''We're not the first to experience that and it's probably not the last time we'll experience it in this league,'' Freeze said. ''So we've got to fight.''

Bravado aside, there's a distinct sense of deflation across the state two years after some of the biggest football weekends in the history of Mississippi. In October 2014, Mississippi State was the No. 1 team in the country for the first time in school history while Ole Miss was closely behind them at No. 3.

The fall has been swift. Now the Bulldogs and Rebels have plenty of work to do over the next five weeks just to reach six wins and make a bowl game.

''I hate sitting up here saying we have to keep working hard, but that's the name of the game,'' Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly said. ''I want to go out there with a bunch of guys who want to fight to the end. We have to find the guys that want to be out there and give it their all.''

Ole Miss had the highest expectations of the two Mississippi programs this season - ranked No. 11 in the preseason - making its rapid fall more surprising. Kelly returned after throwing for more than 4,000 yards last season and has had good moments this season, even though several of his interceptions and lost fumbles have been crucial in losses.

But the Rebels' real problem is on defense.

Ole Miss ranks close to the bottom in the SEC in several major defensive categories, including 13th out of 14 teams in scoring defense (31.4 points per game) and last in rushing yards allowed (226.9 per game).

The Ole Miss defense was torched by LSU running back Leonard Fournette on Saturday. Fournette needed just 16 carries to run for a school-record 284 yards.

The Rebels' frustration boiled over during the game as defensive players argued about the problems.

''There are going to be issues. Families argue,'' Ole Miss defensive end Victor Evans said. ''We're all not going to see eye to eye sometimes. We all try to do what we've got to do to get on one page.''

It won't get any easier for the Rebels: They host No. 15 Auburn (5-2, 3-1) on Saturday.

Mississippi State should have an easier weekend ahead, hosting lower-division foe Samford on Saturday. But nothing has been easy for the Bulldogs, who lost 40-38 to Kentucky last weekend after the Wildcats made a 51-yard field goal as time expired.

Some of Mississippi State's regression was expected since the Bulldogs were transitioning to sophomore quarterback Nick Fitzgerald following the spectacular career of Dak Prescott. But it's safe to say a 2-5 record - which includes losses to South Alabama, BYU and Kentucky - wasn't expected.

''It's a little bit of everything,'' Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. ''You have a bunch of injuries, combined with a bunch of young players, combined with a new staff on the defensive side of the ball. It adds up.''

Mullen says he's still confident in his young core of players, including Fitzgerald, freshman receiver Keith Mixon, freshman linebacker Leo Lewis and freshman defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons.

It's just that when a team is relying on so many young players, large variations in performance are common.

''You see a lot of good things,'' Mullen said. ''And then there are some head scratchers.''

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Follow David Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP . AP College Football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org .

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