Ole Miss-Vanderbilt showdown gaining importance

OleMissLogoDAVID BRANDT, AP Sports Writer

The Ole Miss-Vanderbilt rivalry may never have a cool name like the Iron Bowl or the Egg Bowl.

But there’s little doubt the annual game is beginning to gain added importance now that both schools are upwardly mobile in the notoriously competitive Southeastern Conference.

The fact they’re meeting in a season-opening Thursday night spot on national television is another indication of the added stakes.

Second-year Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze doesn’t downplay the magnitude of the showdown, but also believes it is vital to not let any single game define the program’s success this season.

“There’s no question it’s very important,” Freeze said. “I do think at the situation we’re in with year two, we have to be very careful to continue to focus on the only thing that we can control. That’s how we can prepare today. We start it all over next week. It’s a long season. There are a lot of games. I do believe we’re talented enough to beat some teams.”

The schedule adds to the magnitude of the game.

Ole Miss has to fight through Western Division powers like Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M every season. Vanderbilt always has to deal with programs like Georgia, Florida and South Carolina in the Eastern Division.

So in the search for at least six wins and a bowl berth, Ole Miss and the Commodores look at the contest as a relatively winnable game.

But the rivalry has remained friendly and there’s ample amount of respect on both sides. Both Freeze and third-year Vanderbilt coach James Franklin have talked about the friendship they’ve forged as newcomers in the SEC.

“There are some similarities in a lot of ways” between the programs, Franklin said. “I think there’s a lot of excitement and buzz within their program just like ours, and not only did they have some success but they followed it up.”

Vanderbilt beat Ole Miss 27-26 last season in Oxford. The Commodores have won five out of the last six in the series.

Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace had a lot of success in last year’s game, throwing for a career-high 403 yards. But Vanderbilt rallied in the final minute for the go-ahead touchdown.

It was an exclamation point in the middle of Vanderbilt’s seven-game winning streak to end last season, including a Music City Bowl win over North Carolina State.

“That was a great win,” Franklin said. “I’m not going to rank one win above another. Whenever you can win on the road in the SEC you’re making progress, especially when you’re able to do it in that fashion. Never had the lead until the last 52 seconds. It showed growth in our team, perseverance.”

Ole Miss recovered from the Vanderbilt loss, finishing the regular season with six wins and beating Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl.

Wallace hopes its Ole Miss that shows further growth in Thursday’s game. The 6-foot-4, 209-pound junior will be playing his first game since offseason surgery on his throwing shoulder.

“I feel good,” Wallace said. “I was stressed out a little at the beginning of camp, the first week or two. But finally the game slowed back down for me like it was at the end of last season.”

The game will mark the debut for several of the Rebels’ talented freshman class.

Defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, receiver Laquon Treadwell and tight end Evan Engram were all listed on the first team according to the team’s most recent depth chart, while offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil and safety Tony Conner are also expected to contribute.

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AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this story.

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Follow David Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP