For two weeks, ever since the win against Louisiana-Lafayette, the Ole Miss Rebels were facing an interesting scenario.
There was an open date weekend, followed by the renewal of the ancient series with Memphis. Since 2009, the last time the two teams met, both programs had gone downhill. But it was the Rebels who were able to pick themselves up faster.
Both programs are under third-year head coaches - the Rebels’ Hugh Freeze and the Tigers’ Justin Fuente. Ole Miss had won bowl games the past two seasons. Memphis was 7-17 during that time.
But the Tigers’ scores this season indicated an improved team. Ole Miss knew it would get Memphis’ best shot. To knock off arguably its biggest rival on the road, a highly-ranked Ole Miss team at that, would be just the shot in the arm Memphis needed to solidify that it was turning things around.
Beyond a better Memphis team was the very important but potentially distracting Chucky Mullins weekend activities. There was pressure to win the game because of that.
The football team is shielded from some of it, of course, but they are also a big part of it. They know the story. They wore the lighter shade of blue helmet. They touch his bust as they run out of the tunnel each home game.
This weekend was significantly designed for honoring Chucky Mullins, and the team was well aware of that. Defensively they stood tall for Chucky.
The team also was well aware that a 4-0 start would mean ESPN’s College GameDay would be coming to Oxford. The GameDay folks had even said so on the air Saturday morning from their perch this weekend in Columbia, S.C. So they had to beat Memphis for that reason.
One thing this year’s Rebel team probably didn’t know, and shouldn’t necessarily care, is that they would be the first Ole Miss team in 44 years to start 4-0. Not since the 1970 Ole Miss team had any Rebel team repeated the start – until the 24-3 win against Memphis Saturday night.
The 1970 team that started 4-0 was ranked in the nation’s Top 5 and already had a 48-23 win over Alabama that season to its credit. The next week Southern Mississippi came to Oxford and won what is still arguably the biggest game in USM’s history when it knocked off John Vaught’s Rebels led by Heisman front-runner Archie Manning 30-14 in a shocker.
You know that’s what can happen when that level of team comes in and you sense that pressure throughout the stadium. Then the team doesn’t execute offensively as it’s capable, and some breaks or calls go against them. Then doubt can creep in as the other team hangs around.
Some of those things happened Saturday night. Fortunately for Ole Miss, it’s top-flight defense saved the day and vaulted the Rebels into this week.
This week. What in the world will this week be like?
The GameDay folks have said for years they’d loved to come to Ole Miss for a game. They’ve always wanted to come to Oxford and to the Grove.
It’s the place Ole Miss fans get to experience every home football Saturday. Now the GameDay viewers will get to experience a day there with them.
This will be a different kind of week than last week. This week will have its own set of pressure. But it won’t be like last week.
Last week was simply survive and advance. This week is more of a let it all hang out and roll the dice type deal. It’s almost a what have you got to lose situation.
But the Rebels do have a lot to lose. They’ve earned their way to this position, and they want to advance it.
This is one of those times when the Rebels can prove their worth to the nation. I don’t know how they’ll play. I don’t know how Alabama will play.
But I do believe this. I believe there will be less pressure on Ole Miss this week than last week, as crazy as that sounds. At least mental pressure and emotional pressure. I just don’t think it will be there as much as it was against Memphis.
Jaylen Walton, a Memphian, said he is glad Memphis week is over. He felt some pressure from that week, with the focus on beating his hometown team a priority. He was constantly reminded of that by friends and family alike. And he came through with the Rebels’ best offensive night, at least on the ground.
D.T. Shackelford faces his homestate school again. The leader of the Rebel defense, wearing No. 38 for the second time, said last week was tough in a lot of ways.
“I think it was a distraction,” he said of a Memphis first then Alabama next outlook on things. “Sometimes it’s human nature, but as you see Memphis was a very good team. We have to come out prepared. It’s a team game.”
Shackelford said the Alabama game is as big as it gets. But they have to try to treat it like any other game.
“I’m not going to downplay it like it wouldn’t be a big win,” said the Decatur, Ala., native. “But we have to make sure that we take it one play at a time, and one day at a time. We have to get back at it and get ready to play a 60-minute game.”
Walton agreed that this week will be different.
“We’ve got a lot riding on this Alabama game,” he said. “The top dog is Alabama, and we’ve got College GameDay coming. We’ve got to get focused and play a great game against Alabama.”
And not feel the pressure they seemed to have last week and also Saturday night against the Memphis Tigers.
That one is done and in the win column. Now they can go after one for the ages and enjoy every second of trying to do so.
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