Wherever Ole Miss goes for its bowl game, presumably the Music City Bowl, it won’t arrive in quite the same spirit of excitement that it did last year.
A regular season that included impressive road wins at Vanderbilt and Texas and a home win against LSU – teams that have combined for 25 wins – surpassed by one victory the six-win total of Hugh Freeze’s debut season.
For now there’s tangible proof of progress, but it will take a bowl win to keep it that way. A loss would leave the Rebels 7-6, the same mark they celebrated after beating Pittsburgh in the Compass Bowl a year ago.
Back in August, looking at the challenge of a schedule front-loaded with five road games, a seven-win season could be viewed in positive terms.
Back then that total would have included a win over rival Mississippi State in the finale.
The Egg Bowl came on the heels of a home loss to a top-five Missouri team, forgivable but disappointing given the way the Rebels competed.
So it is that bowl season arrives with a two-game skid and the feeling that things aren’t clicking on offense.
Actually, as Boston would sing back in the day, it’s more than a feeling. The Ole Miss offense has managed just one touchdown in the last two games.
If Rebels quarterback Bo Wallace won the Conerly Trophy in 2012 with his performance against MSU, he likely sealed his defeat a year later with his four-turnover effort in the same game.
Wallace didn’t have the advantage of a successful run game to free up receivers, and Freeze was unable to find a way to exploit an MSU secondary whose 18 touchdown passes allowed tied for fourth-most in the SEC.
The bowl game provides both of them the chance to prove that Ole Miss football is not the product that was displayed against Missouri and Mississippi State.
If Wallace doesn’t have a turnaround game, his doubters will be even louder as they follow him to the beginning of his senior season.
In six games this season Wallace, who threw 17 interceptions a year ago, did not throw a pick. He had only six going into Starkville, but now six of his nine have come in the last four games. If he has another multi-pick game in a bowl loss expect to hear the name of redshirt freshman Devante Kincade invoked in off-season conversation.
For his part, Freeze needs to rebuild fan confidence that his offense can move the ball and score against good defenses, something that hasn’t happened since the LSU game.
As Freeze’s second year draws to a close Ole Miss can’t be happy with just being in a bowl game.
Perhaps that as much as anything is proof of progress.
Parrish Alford (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs daily at InsideOleMissSports.com.