OXFORD, Miss. -- For decades, the Ole Miss fans dutifully donned their cocktail dresses, fleece jackets and red Solo cups and gathered in The Grove for a party that’s undeniably the best in all of college football. And for decades, the caliber of the play rarely matched the quality of the party.
If they handed out tailgating national titles, Ole Miss would make Bear Bryant blush. But instead, the pretty girls in high heels, frat guys in checkered Brooks Brothers and generations of loyal fans celebrated the celebration more than the game.
That all changed after Ole Miss upset then-No. 1 Alabama here on Oct. 4. The Rebels leaped into the hunt for the College Football Playoff, and the paradigm completely transformed.
But in one climactic, dramatic and crushing play that altered the season and national title race, No. 4 Ole Miss fell to No. 3 Auburn, 35-31, and gave their fans a familiar feeling -- a desire to drink away their sorrows.
Here are three thoughts on the game:
1. Laquon Treadwell’s near-touchdown was a tragic way to lose
Ole Miss appeared to take the lead with 1:30 remaining when transcendent receiver Laquon Treadwell took a conventional screen pass near the 20-yard lined and snaked his way to the goal line. The crowd went bonkers. The officials signaled for a touchdown.
But one replay changed everything. Auburn’s Kris Frost tracked down Treadwell from behind, helping force a fumble inches from the end zone that teammate Cassanova McKinzy recovered for Auburn for a touchback. The play not only essentially sealed the game for Auburn, but Treadwell appeared to significantly injure his left ankle after getting dragged down from behind. Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said Treadwell suffered at least a fracture. "He definitely has a fracture,” Freeze said. “It was obvious, even to me. I don't know anything other than that." It’s hard to imagine a more crushing play for Ole Miss, as it lost one of its best players, the game and its national title hopes all in one moment.
Treadwell was carted off the field, and it’s hard to imagine him returning this season. The crowd watched in hushed silence, and the tension over the injury turned to misery when officials overturned the touchdown, giving Auburn the ball at the 20-yard line.
Ole Miss began the game No. 4 in the College Football Playoff standings and will end it in fourth place in the SEC West. Such is life in college football’s version of the Group of Death.
Auburn overcame itself, as the Tigers had five personal foul penalties among 13 penalties for 145 yards.
2. Auburn’s win keeps its playoff hopes alive -- for now
So what does this game mean for the College Football Playoff hopes of these teams? It’s difficult to say with the lack of precedent of how the committee will vote, but a few certainties emerged from Saturday.
Georgia laying a dinosaur egg against Florida in the Cocktail Party isn’t good for any of the teams in the West. There’s a delicious chaos theory brewing that entails the SEC champion struggling to make the playoff? How so? Well, Missouri is in first place in the SEC East right now with a 4-1 league record. Missouri, as we know, lost to Indiana. (If you want a primer on how expansion has diluted the SEC, consider that Missouri could win the SEC East without beating a ranked team this year. That will only draw more criticism of the eight-game conference schedule, which will be a hot button issue once the playoff voting gets real).
Say that Missouri stumbles to another loss and Georgia gathers itself once Todd Gurley returns on Nov. 15 against Auburn and wins the East. If Gurley leads Georgia to a win in the SEC title game, could the SEC get shut out of the College Football Playoff? It would be hard to put Georgia in with losses to Florida and South Carolina. And while you could put a two-loss West team in, it would be really difficult to put two SEC teams in and not put the champion in.
So as for Auburn and Ole Miss?
Auburn’s remaining schedule -- by SEC West standards -- is difficult but not horrific. The Tigers are 4-1 in the league and obviously finish the season at Alabama, which means they still need Mississippi State to lose. This puts Auburn in the awkward position of having to cheer for Alabama to beat Mississippi State in two weeks. The Tigers are still alive for the College Football Playoff but may have to get there without winning the West.
3. Ole Miss has injury issues that go deeper than Treadwell
The climactic play at the goal line not only likely ended Ole Miss’ national title hopes, but could handicap the rest of its season. Treadwell suffered his fracture on the game’s defining play, the screen pass that appeared to give Ole Miss the lead but instead ruined the Rebels’ night.
Ole Miss entered the game with the country’s top scoring defense. By a lot. The Rebels had allowed just 10.5 points per game, two points less than No. 2 Stanford. Ole Miss held Auburn to 1 of 6 on third downs in the first half and 6 of 13 for the game, the pivotal statistic considering the Tigers averaged 8.1 yards per play.
But Ole Miss’ combination of a banged-up offensive line and uneven quarterback play could well end up dooming the Rebels in the meat grinder of the SEC West. Ole Miss is limited offensively, with Treadwell the only true gamebreaker. The Rebels played Saturday night without left tackle Laremy Tunsil, their best offensive linemen. He has an injured right shoulder that’s hounded him this season. This caused a shuffle up front that included right tackle Fahn Cooper flipping to left tackle and backup center Robert Conyers moving to right tackle. Starting center Ben Still is playing with a sprained MCL. Neither of Ole Miss’ right guards is particularly good, which is why Justin Bell and Rod Taylor rotate.
All that equates to a line that needs to get healthy by the time the Egg Bowl rolls around. It’s Ole Miss’ distinct weakness, especially with a quarterback prone to bad decisions under duress.