OXFORD – Get out the cliche counter and track how many times any given football coach and player use words like “fight” and “quit.”
It’s no small amount, and you can expect to hear those words tossed around quite a bit as the two last-place SEC teams meet Saturday morning in Knoxville.
Ole Miss and Tennessee are a combined 1-9 in SEC play, the lone victory being the Rebels’ 42-35 decision against Kentucky in early October.
It’s been more than a month since Ole Miss has beaten a conference opponent, and the Rebels have to have this game – or develop a plan to win at No. 5 LSU – and win against No. 17 Mississippi State if they are to avoid a losing season.
The Rebels are 1-4 in the league right now, two games out of fifth place. The worst of Houston Nutt’s 12 seasons in the SEC was a 2-6 mark for Arkansas in 2005.
Tennessee and Ole Miss are coming off big wins against non-conference opponents whose combined records are 3-15.
When Nutt considers this weekend in the Smokies he says, “There are still bowl possibilities for both teams. There’s a lot to play for.”
First-year Vols coach Derek Dooley doesn’t bring up the bowl angle unprompted. No doubt it’s in the minds of his players, who, if they can pick up win No. 4 against Ole Miss, see a remaining schedule void of ranked opponents.
“I’d like to get (players) motivated by saying, ‘Let’s win an SEC game,’ before we talk about a bowl game,” Dooley said. “We’re 0-5. I’m not going to sit here and say nobody should think about a bowl game, because that’s human nature. The biggest thing is let’s go out and put together a complete game against an SEC opponent. We haven’t done that.”
Nor have the Vols – save one game at Georgia — been trashed wire-to-wire, which leads us back to “fight” and “quit.” Whoever has the most of the former, the least of the latter stands the greatest chance to win on Saturday.
Tennessee was down just 7-3 at the half against Florida and was tied with Oregon, LSU, Alabama and South Carolina. The Vols and Gamecocks were deadlocked with 12:17 to play when South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia hit his big target, Alshon Jeffery, with a 70-yard bomb, and Carolina went on to win by two touchdowns.
Ole Miss needs early success at Neyland Stadium. If Tennessee is tied or within striking distance in the middle of the third quarter, it will smell opportunity against a vulnerable opponent. That creates fight.
The Rebels have little recent success in the SEC to draw upon. They didn’t quit in losses at Alabama and Arkansas, and they were overwhelmed by a more talented Auburn team.
If Tennessee is in the game late, its crowd loud, that leads to doubt for Ole Miss, which leads to uncertainty, indecision, standing around and not making the critical play. It’s hard to have fight in that situation.
The Rebels need to possess the football and put points on the board, run on Tennessee like other teams have and prove the resurgence of running backs Brandon Bolden and Enrique Davis is a trend and not an isolated non-conference occurrence.
If Ole Miss takes that level of fight to Tennessee, it can earn its second SEC win, and the bowl-game talk will be more meaningful next week.
Parrish Alford (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs daily about Ole Miss athletics at NEMS360.com.
PARRISH ALFORD / NEMS Daily Journal