Show of hands: How many of you dismissed the Rebels and their chances for an SEC West championship and College Football Playoff berth after their loss at Memphis? Put your hand down, lone person in the back. Liar.
I know I did. Ole Miss looked lifeless in what most all of us thought was a demoralizing, season-altering loss. Morale was low, from the fans to the players and coaches. But head coach Hugh Freeze has said time and again the true character and DNA of a team is discovered when adversity strikes.
Well, what we’ve learned is these Rebels are determined, and if any of their remaining opponents are going to take them down, they’re going to have to do it fighting.
“It was a good SEC fist fight,” Freeze said following the Rebels’ 27-19 win at Auburn. “You go on the road in this conference, and that’s what it’s going to be. This time of year, you just try to find a way to win them. I believe our kids just said we’re the Alabama state champs. We swept Alabama this year.”
Indeed, they are Alabama state champs. Today’s win meant Ole Miss (7-2, 4-1 SEC) has defeated Auburn and Alabama on the road in the same season for the first time in school history.
But the Rebels have much bigger goals in mind now.
Ole Miss holds its “truth” day each Sunday. The team gathers in its meeting room and evaluates the previous game’s film, with each and every person allowed to speak candidly about what went wrong, what went right and the best approach moving forward. Brutal honesty only.
The Sunday after Memphis was different. At least four players - quarterback Chad Kelly, wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, linebacker C.J. Johnson and offensive lineman Justin Bell - stood up and challenged their teammates. It was put up or shut up time, and everyone knew it, no matter what anyone said publicly to the media. Their season, for all intents and purposes, was on the line.
And Ole Miss responded with its best week of practice, followed by two must-wins against capable conference foes.
Ole Miss wasn’t perfect Saturday. Kelly threw two interceptions, Auburn hit on a couple of big plays in the passing game and Freeze opted to go for it again on fourth down inside an opponent’s 10 when taking a field goal with a lead was an option.
But what’s so encouraging moving forward is Ole Miss has found itself again on defense. DeMarquis Gates started at linebacker, and he finished third on the team with three tackles after leading the team a week ago. The cornerback duo of Tony Bridges and Ken Webster has settled in, including the second interception of the season for Bridges to end a Auburn scoring threat. Ole Miss is finally generating consistent pressure up front, some of which can be attributed to a few master-stroke moves by the coaching staff: Fadol Brown used, situationally, at defensive tackle and Johnson back at defensive end some.
Kelly is a gamer, bouncing back time and again with plays only he and his powerful arm can make. Fault for one of his interceptions lay at the feet of tight end Evan Engram. The other was a bad decision. Even so, Kelly kept taking chances downfield, ultimately making winning plays. He found Derrick Jones for a 45-yard touchdown, the second score of Jones’ career. He fed Treadwell, the SEC leader in receptions and receiving yards per game, pretty much the entire second half. Treadwell finished with seven catches for 114 years and a touchdown, his eighth career 100-yard game and the fifth of the season, which ties a school record. Kelly finished 33 of 51 for 381 yards.
The running game has come on, and some of the credit has to go to Akeem Judd, who’s provided a much-needed boost. He carried eight times for 54 yards and a touchdown in the win, including an impressive 21-yard scoring run that featured a cutback or two and a nice display of power. Ole Miss has now put together back-to-back strong efforts (230 yards, 156 yards).
Ole Miss entered the game 2-14 all-time in Auburn, and the Rebels had lost four of the last five games in the series. There were times Saturday when it seemed like they were destined for another bitter defeat, but they responded. Over and over and over.
So dismiss your doubt if you have some left.
The fear for most, I’d assume, was Texas A&M was an anomaly. It wasn’t. Ole Miss is a contender, the Rebels still having everything in front of them. Up next is a home date with Arkansas, followed by a bye, LSU at home and at in-state rival Mississippi State. Two weeks ago, such a stretch seemed daunting.
That is, until the real Ole Miss stood up and made believers of us all.