The Rebels haven’t been the same since.
The reeling Rebels will host Texas A&M Saturday at 6 p.m. fresh off their second loss in their last four games. Both losses were, in may ways, unexpected not just in outcome, but also in their lopsidedness. Ole Miss was favored at Florida and at Memphis, only to end up on the wrong end of double-digit finishes.
It’s been a surprising change of course, to say the least. The win over Alabama marked the first time in history the Rebels defeated Alabama in back-to-back years. It was also the first win for Ole Miss in Tuscaloosa since 1988, and the Rebels rose as high as No. 3 in the major polls.
So, what’s gone wrong?
“I feel like we don’t have as much swagger anymore,” tight end Evan Engram said. “We don’t have as much fun. When we get things going, like when we went up 14-0 (against Memphis), we were bouncing around, we had a lot of energy. We were flying around and having fun. But as soon as something goes wrong, everything kind of crumbles. We can’t allow that. We don’t have a lot of consistency. We’ve been having a lot of penalties, a lot of things hurting us - turnovers and stuff. It’s a lot of things we can fix and we need to get it fixed fast.”
Ole Miss, at 5-2 and 2-1 in Southeastern Conference play, has five games remaining this season. There are no gimmes, either. After Texas A&M is a road trip to Auburn on Halloween, followed by Arkansas at home, a much-needed bye week, LSU and a road date with in-state rival Mississippi State.
Put simply, it’s do-or-die time.
“The next five games are going to be crucial,” quarterback Chad Kelly said. “We have to win out in order to make it to the SEC championship game. We all understand that. The focus we’ve had in practice has been great, from the coaches down to the players. The intensity has risen a tremendous amount. People’s awareness and focus has definitely risen. They understand this is like a whole new season. What’s behind us is what’s behind us. We’re at 5-2 right now. We have to understand that if we want to be the best, we have to beat the best and play our best at all times.”
Kelly has been far from the problem.
He leads the SEC in passing yards (2,234), yards per completion (14.51), total offense (337.3 per game) and touchdown passes (16). He ranks seventh in the nation in passing yards, while his yards per completion and total offense rank 11.
He’s thrown for over 300 yards in five games this season, a school record.
“We have to make sure we have the confidence we had going into Alabama, and being hungry every single day on the practice field,” he said. “That’s what I tried stressing to those guys. We know we’re the best team in the land. I have no doubt about that. We have the players to do it, the coaches to do it. As long as everybody believes in that, it’s hard to stop us.
“We understand how good we can be. The only people that are going to stop us are ourselves. At the end of the day, we’re all we have. Why not just go out there and play balls to the wall every single play and know that you’re the best team out there? If you know you’re the best, you have to go out and prove it. Memphis did that. They went out there and they were a lot hungrier, I think. We have to match it every single time we step out on the field.”
Ole Miss has mixed things up a bit in practices this week. Head coach Hugh Freeze said the coaching staff upped the intensity, including adding an extra tackling period. The Rebels missed 30 tackles in the loss to Memphis.
The offensive line was reshuffled with the return of left tackle Laremy Tunsil from suspension, and the addition of C.J. Johnson at linebacker following injury provides an immediate boost for a struggling defense. But players were encouraged to speak up during meetings and practices as well. On Sunday, wide receiver Laquon Treadwell answered the call, as did safety Mike Hilton, Kelly, offensive lineman Justin Bell and Johnson. Johnson missed the last two games due to a torn meniscus.
“The thing about this thing right now is we’re not going to sit here and point fingers or make excuses,” Bell said. “We’re all in this together, from the coaching staff to the (graduate assistants) to us. We all have looked ourselves in the mirror. Reality has set in with all of us. We’re ready to attack this week. We’re going to build this energy between anybody and everybody.
“That’s the deal with the football program this week. We still have everything in control. If we win out, we’re still in Atlanta. We’re going to take it week by week. We’re going to improve and we’re going to do this thing. I feel like we have a lot of confidence. We’re going to get back to our old self.”