Role Reversal

In 2008 an underdog walked into hostile territory and upset a national title contender.

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Seven years later the roles are reversed, though the setting is the same.

Ole Miss fans won’t soon forget the 31-30 Rebel win at Florida, which included a blocked extra point, a stop on fourth-and-1 and a Tim Tebow apology. But now the Rebels have gone from the hunters to the hunted, and come Saturday at 6 p.m. on ESPN, they’ll face a much-improved Gator team looking to show they’re back.

For No. 3 Ole Miss, however, there’s no talk of rankings, its current playoff standing or anything else. Only task at hand.

“We don’t talk about all that,” head coach Hugh Freeze said after practice Wednesday. “I think that’s so overrated. We appreciate the coverage that our sport gets, but we’re four games into the season and people are talking about bowl games. None of that really matters right now. It will all shake itself out, and whoever’s playing the best football in October and November usually ends up in the right places. We’ve just got to worry about what we can control. We can’t control injuries, but we can control how we prepare and the effort we put into it.”

No. 23 Florida is led by a defense that allows 18.2 points per game and ranks fourth in the SEC in total defense. Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III has been recognized as a first team All-American and one of the top defensive players in all of college football.

“They’re a lot like us,” Freeze said. “Very athletic, very fast. Movement. Tremendous get-off, particularly at home when they know they’ve got you in a silent cadence issue. Their d-line has got really good get-off. Their defensive backs are as good as you’ll see. The whole defense is very talented, and they can run and they tackle well. It’s just one of the better defenses in the country.”

Florida defensive coordinator Geoff Collins is in his first year after a previous stop at in-state rival Mississippi State. Freeze said that familiarity could help both sides.

“I’m sure it’s helpful to both sides,” he said. “I’m sure it’s helpful to him, too. He’s played against us since he was there. He can go back and look at things and remember things that we do and be prepared for it. That probably works both ways.”

Ole Miss is healthy, for the most part, heading into the game. “Husky” Tony Conner is a week removed from surgery to repair the torn meniscus in his right knee. Freeze said, as far as he knows, everything is going well. Not so much for right guard Justin Bell.

“I saw (Conner) yesterday and didn’t get to speak with him,” he said. “I’ll have to get an update, but I’m sure I would have heard if things had not been going well. We don’t expect to have Justin Bell. He hasn’t been able to practice yet. We’ll probably be without him also. Rod (Taylor) going to go. He’s looked better. He’s going to give it a shot, for sure. There’s some things he’s good at, and there’s others he’s still coming along with. But he’s definitely better than he’s been. (Robert) Conyers is going to gut it out. He’s a tough dude. He’ll go.”

Ole Miss hasn’t ruled out a medical redshirt for Taylor, who tore the labrum in his shoulder in the preseason.

“We’ve kept up with the games,” Freeze said. “I believe we have until, if he plays this week, the New Mexico game. He basically gets to play in four games, which he hasn’t done yet. If we went that route, we could do that, for sure. We’ve talked about all the options. We’ll try to do what’s best for him and the team. We don’t have to make a decision today, so we’re just kind of progressing to see if he can continue to get better. There’s no question he’s better this week.”

As far as the kicking game, Freeze has been pleased with sophomore Gary Wunderlich, who has emerged as a real weapon. Wunderlich made two field goals, three PATs and had a field goal blocked against Vanderbilt. He ranks fourth in the SEC in scoring and 20th in the nation.

“Solid. Real solid,” Freeze said. “I love his demeanor; he doesn’t get rattled. The kick we had blocked (against Vanderbilt), it was bad protection. He hit it a little low; that’s the first one he’s done like that. But that’s the first one he’s missed all year. I couldn’t be more pleased.”

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