Day After Observations

Notes and thoughts from the Rebels’ 48-20 Sugar Bowl win over Oklahoma State …

Just getting back from a hectic but productive bowl week.

I don’t think anyone could have scripted a better experience for Ole Miss.

The Sugar Bowl is not what it once was, but none of the bowls are. That’s today’s college football landscape.

I’ve heard a lot of talk about the playoff and “what it’s done to other bowls.” This is no big surprise. The powers that be didn’t hide this format. The “big game” is going to rotate, and the six major bowls will all get their time in the spotlight.

Remember, the spotlight is what Breeland Speaks was working hard to avoid. More on that later.

So the Sugar Bowl wasn’t as big a deal on the national scene as it was last year when it was a playoff game. That was a story line for some New Orleans media.

The Sugar will have its day again. For this season, it was a huge deal for the participating teams, and attendance at the game proved that. Ole Miss fans turned in force. Oklahoma State, given the geographic challenges, made a nice statement too. There were some empty seats in the Dome, but not the section after section of empties that you can see when the cameras pull out for aerial shots at many bowl games.

When you walked the streets of New Orleans on Thursday you knew something was up. You could tell there was a big event coming.

The national media can spin the Sugar Bowl however it must.

For Ole Miss fans, it was a lifetime experience. For older fans it was a return to a cherished past when trips to one of college football’s most prestigious bowls were so common they were taken for granted. For younger fans it was validation that last year’s New Year’s Six bowl was not an isolated incident.

For all fans it was a chance to move past the Peach Bowl debacle in a big, big way.

Last year’s 42-3 loss to TCU was embarrassing. Whatever happened in that week of bowl preparation that led to that result did not happen this year.

Hugh Freeze was adamant that he would look at exactly how last year’s bowl prep was handled and give a complete overhaul if necessary.

There have been stories about players staying out late and that sort of thing. Tony Bridges, who was not a part of last year’s team, seemed to address that when he talked about a stricter environment where girlfriends – not even mommas – were allowed in players’ hotel rooms.

On the field, it was a great performance by Chad Kelly. I didn’t write about him enough in game stories that I was putting together as things unfolded. I mentioned his numbers which were very good at 21-for-33 passing, 302 yards and four touchdowns.

He played with the immense poise he’d shown over the previous three games of turnover-free football. The interception he threw was not a great decision but was a result of his confidence in Laquon Treadwell. Double coverage won out that time, and it ended a string of 106 passes without an interception for Kelly. He wasn’t really close to throwing a second one.

Defensively, Ole Miss held Oklahoma State to 63 rushing yards, most of that coming from backup quarterback J.W. Walsh in the fourth quarter. The Cowboys had only minus-11 rushing yards after three quarters.

It’s not like the Rebels shut down one of the upper tier SEC run games here, but even passing teams as prolific as Oklahoma State had been struggle when they can’t run the ball at all.

The Rebels achieved this level of dominance without the help of suspended All-American Robert Nkemdiche.

There were different sets and a whole lot of 3-man looks from Dave Wommack. That allowed his thinning numbers of defensive tackles to get some rest, and they still got winded.

DJ Jones and Breeland Speaks more than held their own.

Speaks told us during the week that he was eager for his opportunity to play a larger role and was working hard to stay out of the spotlight.

Nkemdiche ties up blockers and gives the opposing staff something to think about on every snap. Speaks plays with a high motor and will get better and better. And there’s something to be said for a guy who shuns attention.

Also standing out on defense was Mike Hilton in his final Ole Miss game. He had five tackles, 1 1-2 tackles for loss and two pass break-ups.

You can talk about the big three, but Mike Hilton’s absence will be noted next season.

While Ole Miss stuffed the Oklahoma State run game it also surpassed 200 yards on the ground once again.

Kelly finished with 73 yards on 10 carries, but it seemed a little quieter night on the ground for him maybe because he didn’t score.

Akeem Judd, Jordan Wilkins and Jaylen Walton all ran well. Wilkins in the second half of late really reminds me of the way Cordera Eason ran in 2008 after teams wore themselves out chasing around Dexter McCluster.

There is good potential for the running backs moving forward. So much of what the ground game gets done depends on the offensive line. There will be numbers up front and some interesting potential in the Post-Tunsil Era. Some growing pains coming no doubt, but I think the Rebels can be OK up there.

Kelly was named the game’s outstanding player. It was an honor that could have gone to Treadwell had he been the Rebels’ only receiving threat. That’s not been the case this season, and it wasn’t last night. What a game for Treadwell, though. Big, physical catches and touchdowns on half of his six receptions, plus the 45-yard pass to a wide-open Wilkins.

When the camera found Treadwell or Laremy Tunsil in the postgame celebration Ole Miss fans quickly and loudly chanted, “One more year.”

Neither of those players have officially announced for the NFL, but players projected in the top half of the first round don’t typically return citing “unfinished business.”

I don’t believe Laquon Treadwell will return to Ole Miss. However, he may be giving this more thought than Tunsil. Treadwell seems to really enjoy the college game, and there’s a love affair between he and Ole Miss fans.

As far Tunsil, it seems to me that beyond the draft projection – which is plenty reason to take off – that he would not be inclined to deal with the NCAA any further. The investigation that led to his seven-game suspension is complete. I’m just thinking it probably carries for a player a feeling of ‘Why bother with this?’

Tunsil was not without fault in that matter, but it was handled poorly from an NCAA standpoint.

So the page turns from the Big 3 of the 2013 class, and the Sugar Bowl gives an encouraging glimpse of the future.

Some analysts will hold the fact that the 2013 group never reached Atlanta against them. They did all they could do without getting to the SEC title game, and they missed that goal by only a fluke play.

They not only reached the Sugar Bowl and won it, but they dominated, and that’s a big, big deal in Ole Miss circles.

Ole Miss finishes the year 10-3 and will have a chance for a top 10 finish in the AP Top 25 or the coaches poll.

The College Football Playoff Committee poll is what matters most, and the Rebels are No. 12 there. The committee, however, will not have another poll. The Rebels are currently No. 16 in the AP and No. 15 in the coaches. They were dominant enough to make a top 10 leap, but that’s a big leap. We’ll see.

More important than the polls is this: The last time Ole Miss won 10 games was 2003, Eli Manning’s senior year. There was happiness and joy in Dallas leaving the field at the Cotton Bowl that day, but there was also apprehension about the transition ahead for 2004.

This 10-win Ole Miss team returns an All-SEC quarterback, some very good receivers and experienced running backs. It returns a lot of experience on both lines and also in the secondary.

And as attention turns to recruiting the Rebels currently have the No. 2-ranked class for 2016 according to Rivals.com.

Times have changed.

You don’t lose players like Laquon Treadwell, Laremy Tunsil and Robert Nkemdiche and not feel it, but the Rebels are far more equipped to handle the change than they were in 2003.

 

 

 

Denham Springs, La., native, Mississippian since 1989 with a stop in Meridian before arriving in Tupelo. Daily Journal beat writer since 1996, covering Ole Miss since 2002. Proud Northeast Louisiana alum. Follow me on Twitter @parrishalford and listen to John Davis and myself daily with The Ole Miss Beat on Rebel Sports Radio.

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