OXFORD – Nowhere on opening weekend will the college football idea of “every game matters” be more true than when Ole Miss visits Vanderbilt on Aug. 29.
Two evenly matched conference rivals will meet at 8:15 p.m., on ESPN, both exceeding expectations a year ago and returning with lots of momentum – and lots of experienced starters – to begin 2013.
Winning that first game is big for each team. For Ole Miss, that’s not just because it counts in the conference standings.
James Franklin’s Vanderbilt team will face South Carolina on the road two weeks later but will have another home game first against Austin Peay.
The Ole Miss schedule after leaving Nashville is daunting.
The Rebels will play a home game on Sept. 7 against Southeast Missouri State but won’t be back at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium before Oct. 12 against Texas A&M.
“That game in Nashville in August is going to be difficult regardless of what comes after it,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze. “It’s going to be difficult because of the job coach Franklin and his staff have done there. They will understand quite clearly what this game means. Our kids will too.”
After leaving Vanderbilt, the Rebels face Texas, Alabama and Auburn – all on the road. An open date prior to the Tuscaloosa trip is a consolation prize in that brutal stretch of away games, and it’s lessened by the fact that Alabama has an open date the same week.
Opening with a conference opponent is not unheard of but is rare.
Last year, the Rebels gained confidence in wins against Central Arkansas and Texas-El Paso before stepping up in competition against Texas.
Freeze would like to see a more traditional schedule that mixes home and road games better than the one he has this year.
“Certainly I wish it wasn’t that way. I don’t think it’s ideal,” he said.
Freeze encourages his players to focus on what they can control, and the string of September road games does not fall in that category.
“It’s very, very important, because it’s an SEC game. It’s at Vandy, and it opens up college football. It’s going to be a great thing, and it’s on a Thursday night, so everybody will be watching,” Ole Miss receiver Donte Moncrief said.
Opening with a league opponent does bring with it a certain level of focus. Neither team will be looking past the other.
“I love it. Once you open up with an SEC opponent, especially one like Ole Miss, you don’t have to worry about coming in each game, each day of practice or in the weight room and trying to be that rah rah guy trying to get everybody going,”
Vanderbilt wide receiver Jordan Matthews said. “They know the expectations. They know what’s coming. This is a great team that just had a great recruiting class, has a lot of momentum and hype.”
Ole Miss, predicted last in the SEC in 2012, went 7-6 in Freeze’s first year, including a 38-17 win over Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl.
Vanderbilt won its last seven games including a two-touchdown victory over N.C. State at the Music City Bowl, played in the Commodores’ hometown.
After a 31-17 loss to Florida in Nashville, no team was closer to beating the Commodores than Ole Miss, which squandered a 23-6 third-quarter lead in a 27-26 loss.
A controversial spot of the football late in the game went Vanderbilt’s way, as did the Commodores’ red zone defense, which forced Ole Miss to kick four field goals.
“That’s why we condition so hard. We lasted longer than they lasted,” Vandy cornerback Andre Hal said.
That wasn’t the way Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace remembered it.
“We know that we let one get away from us right there, to blow a fourth-quarter lead like that. The whole game we were in the red zone and had to kick field goals,” he said.