Texas-sized Gauntlet

Ole Miss had little to gain Saturday against Southeast Missouri. Stay healthy, play a lot of players and, most importantly, win.

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Boring as it was: Check. Check. Check.

"Kinda surprised that you guys are still awake," Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze said postgame, "because we certainly didn't do anything to keep you interested."

Zzzzzz … What time is it? Sorry. I'm up, I'm up. Back to the column.

Southeast Missouri was a squash opponent in a squash game. To borrow from professional wrestling, the Redhawks were the jobber to Ole Miss' way-over face, there for the sole purpose of getting an easy win and making the Rebels look good.

Think Daniel Bryan pinning Wade Barrett clean.

The final score, 31-13, was expected if uninspiring, and now Ole Miss turns full attention to Texas. The Rebels are 2-0, as they had to be entering the upcoming five-game gauntlet of at Texas, at Alabama, at Auburn and Texas A&M and LSU at home.

It's fair to say this upcoming stretch of games will define the season. Really.

"I'm disappointed in the passion we played with in the second half," Freeze said. The Rebels scored all of their 31 points in the first half. "With the stretch of games we have coming, that won't get it done. We have to expect more of ourselves and finish stronger."

Here's what we've learned about this team through two games: Pass defense, specifically cornerback, is far and away the greatest concern, the Rebels are still searching for a consistent pass rush, the offensive line is a work in progress and the run game - save for Jeff Scott's 75-yard, game-winning scamper at Vanderbilt - is pretty much a mystery.

Hugh Freeze
USA TODAY images

Granted, Ole Miss had success in each of those areas against SEMO. Cody Prewitt registered his second interception of the year, for example, and Channing Ward had a sack. The Rebels totaled over 350 yards, including 155 rushing, by halftime. Their 31-0 halftime lead was their largest since 2008.

"It's hard to tell," junior quarterback Bo Wallace, who didn't play at all in the second half and finished 8 of 15 for 188 yards and two touchdowns, said of the team's play so far.

"We're confident. We're really confident. We feel like we can play with anybody. But to play as poorly as we did in the second half, I think it'll be good for us. We'll go back and work a little harder."

Texas will tell a lot about Ole Miss and where it's headed. A season isn't made or lost in one game, as last season's 66-31 loss to Texas proved. "That's not going to happen again," junior cornerback Senquez Golson said following the win over SEMO.

The Rebels finished 7-6 overall and made a bowl game for the first time in three years, so not the end of the world if they lose next week.

The loss did, however, lead to a number of changes, most notably the move of then-true freshman Trae Elston into the starting lineup at safety and Charles Sawyer to cornerback. There were other changes, too, but the point is Texas exposed Ole Miss' flaws.

The Rebels don't become a bowl-quality team without that loss.

"Going into Texas last year, I felt like the team didn't really know what to expect," junior safety Cody Prewitt said. "We do this year. We're ready for it. We just can't take anything for granted. Going into that game last year, we were a little high on ourselves just ‘cause of the wins we had. We were a little overconfident. Now we know we're going to have to take a lot of extra focus and be physical and take ownership of that game early."

About the Ole Miss secondary. Guard your eyes.

The Rebels have faced two less-than-stellar quarterbacks in two games. First, Vanderbilt's Austyn Carta-Samuels. Ole Miss was his second career start, and his first as Commodore quarterback after transferring from Wyoming, where he was unable to earn the starting job. He completed 21 of 36 passes for 279 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.

A week later, it was Scott Lathrop giving Ole Miss fits, finishing 16 of 24 for 159 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.

CBs, Mike Hilton included, have struggled through two games.
Bruce Newman

By comparison, the same Scott Lathrop who completed 1 of 6 passes for 13 yards, no touchdowns and an interception in a 45-7 loss to Southeastern Louisiana.

Ole Miss rotated a number of players at cornerback. Senquez Golson and recently-moved-from-HUSKY Mike Hilton started, with Anthony Standifer, Q Burdette, Bobby Hill, among others, making an appearance. Senior Charles Sawyer has been dealing with injury and didn't play.

Next up is the team that a year ago torched Ole Miss for 676 yards of total offense, including 326 passing yards and four touchdowns. To make matters worse, the Longhorns rushed for 350 yards, too, with four more touchdowns.

"Average. I don't think it's been spectacular," senior linebacker D.T. Shackelford said of the defense's play through two games. "I don't think we've played at the level we know we're capable of playing. I'm pretty sure it'll get back on track. We've got pretty good leaders and players to make sure it gets back to where it needs to be."

Ole Miss has to get back there starting this week. Texas isn't the Texas of old. The No. 15-ranked Longhorns lost at BYU, 40-21, on this same night. Ole Miss and Texas could very well combine for over 100 points the way these two teams have started the year, neither one stopping the other. Basically, who has the ball last.

Bottom line, and to again borrow from wrestling: Ole Miss is done with jobbers and mid-carders - well, depending on your opinion of Auburn - for the next month. Headliner after headliner from this point forward.

And how the Rebels handle the top of the card will determine whether or not 2013 is, shall we say, special.

"We learned a lot," after Texas last year, Wallace said. "I think you saw a different football team after that. Hopefully, you'll see a different football team after this tonight because the fans that came out didn't deserve to see us play as poorly as we did."

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