The Sugar Bowl will become official for the Rebels tomorrow, their first visit there in six decades.
It was after the 1969 season that Ole Miss won the 1970 game 27-22 against Arkansas. Archie Manning was a sophomore then. Archie ran for 29 yards and a touchdown and passed for 273 and another in a city who would soon call home.
The committee will announce the playoff teams at 11:30 on ESPN and will announce its bowl game matchups – the New Year’s Six games – at 2 p.m.
According to the Southeastern Conference the Sugar Bowl is contractually obligated to take the conference team ranked second-highest by the playoff committee if the SEC champion is in the four-team playoff as Alabama will be. The Tide, at 11-1, was No. 2 going into the championship game and won 29-15.
Ole Miss was the league’s second team according to those rankings, a healthy five spots ahead of Florida, before the day began. Ole Miss was at No. 13, Florida at No. 18. Two other SEC teams were ranked, LSU at 21 and Tennessee at 25.
Oklahoma State, it appears, will be the opponent. After Baylor’s stunning home loss to Texas Saturday the Big 12 was left with two two-loss teams. Oklahoma State and TCU both finished 7-2, and Oklahoma State won the regular season matchup. That’s the tie-breaker.
Back to the SEC. When you kick off in a championship game anything can happen, but a Florida win over Alabama would have been the biggest upset since Skippy over Jiff, and I don’t know if that’s ever happened.
Florida’s path to that upset was going to have to rely on defense. The Gators are very good there, and they played that way early. They led after a special teams touchdown. They stayed close.
At the end of the day you can’t be one-dimensional on a stage like that, and four quarters of football is ample time for your weaknesses to blossom. Florida’s did, and Alabama was up 29-7 when the Gators scored on a long touchdown pass.
Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze after the Egg Bowl tried to process the state of his team that had just won its fourth SEC West game in five tries. The loss in that span … well you know.
Freeze said he felt like the Rebels would have won the SEC championship had they gotten to the game. I agree. Freeze didn’t say, “That’s because we’re playing at an extremely high level, but Florida is weak on offense.” He didn’t say that, but both parts of that statement are true. I’d have taken the Rebels in a rematch as well.
Hay’s in the barn now, and you look ahead, not back.
Ole Miss is 9-3 and for the last month and a half played the way most folks thought they’d play all year. Improvement happens when you add a likely top five draft pick to your lineup, and that’s what the Rebels did when Laremy Tunsil became eligible.
I’ve given Tunsil a lot of credit for the Rebels’ offensive improvement, and he certainly deserves that. It’s also worth noting that Chad Kelly in the run game has given opponents a wrinkle to think about that they hadn’t seen previously. Kelly kind of burst onto the scene with that in the Arkansas game. Afterward he talked about taking what the defense was giving, but you knew it was more than that. Freeze touched on that a little more after the Egg Bowl talking about waiting on the best time to turn Kelly loose, the last big punch for his offense, that last something different. It was like Rocky switching from his right hand to his left to take down Apollo Creed.
Not only is Kelly running right now, but he’s played turnover-free for three straight games. He had a streak of multi-pick games going before Arkansas, but now he hasn’t thrown an interception since early in the fourth quarter at Auburn. That’s 105 straight passes.
So on a sunny Saturday in the Christmas shopping season with high school championships, including the local team, taking place at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium Ole Miss fans were able to relax and watch everybody else, and you probably heard more Roll Tides coming from Oxford than ever before.
So Ole Miss is back in the Sugar Bowl. What does it mean?
It doesn’t mean you’re the best in the SEC as it did for so many years.
But it’s a New Year’s Six game, and in the modern landscape of college football that’s huge.
Ole Miss is not the best team in the SEC right now, but the committee whose job is to present the best four teams in the country to play for the national championship says the Rebels are the No. 2 team in the league. That’s pretty stout.
Playing in the Sugar Bowl will wake up the echoes of the proudest seasons of Ole Miss’ rich history. There are plenty of fans around who remember those John Vaught teams. A return trip to the Sugar Bowl will mean more to them than I’m sure I understand.
It’s also big for the signing class of 2013. The poster children will leave for the NFL after this season. So what did you accomplish with them? Well, Freeze accomplished the most wins in a three-year period at Ole Miss since 1961-1963. As sophomores and juniors the group has gone 11-5 in the SEC regular season and now will play in a New Year’s Six bowl game for a second-straight season.
The Class of 13 didn’t get to Atlanta for the championship game, and many will hold that against them, but they got a lot done in their three-year window.
The group has a chance for a giant exclamation point with a Sugar Bowl win.
Shortly after Freeze told us he thought the Rebels would win the SEC championship game if there he made reference to last year’s humiliating 42-3 loss to TCU in the Peach Bowl. Wants another shot in a bowl like that, he said. It’s on his radar.
I can’t tell you Ole Miss will be Oklahoma State, but I don’t think the Rebels will get waxed like they did last year. They’ll be competitive.
And the whole bowl experience will be much sweeter than a year ago.