Ole Miss headed to the Sugar Bowl for first time since 1970

It’s been almost a half century, but Ole Miss has finally earned its return trip to New Orleans, La., for the Sugar Bowl.

The Rebels, as announced Sunday on ESPN, will take on Oklahoma State in the Allstate Sugar Bowl in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome Jan. 1 at 7:30 p.m.

“It’s kind of a bucket list thing if you’re the head coach at Ole Miss,” Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze said.

The Cowboys finished second in the Big 12 with a 10-2 record, moving past Baylor for bowl positioning following the Bears’ upset loss to Texas Saturday. Though both OSU and TCU finished with 7-2 marks in league play, the Cowboys owned the head-to-head tiebreaker. Ole Miss will be playing Oklahoma State for the third time since 2004. The Rebels won both Cotton Bowl meetings with the Cowboys in 2004 and 2010.

“I was at an 11-year-old basketball tournament in a small town in Oklahoma, and they do not have cell service,” Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy said. When I came out, my phone when I drove down the road a little ways started dinging in with a bunch of text messages. I was actually getting play-by-play from coaches on our staff. I was unaware of what was transpiring with the Baylor and Texas game. Emotionally, for me, I was able to take a break ‘cause I was not aware of what was happening. Once I found out, I was really excited for our players and coaches. Just glad that we made it into the Sugar Bowl.”

Ole Miss is one of only five schools to play in a New Year's Six bowl two straight years. The Rebels closed the regular season as the second-highest ranked team in the SEC behind Alabama, who was named one of the four College Football Playoff participants, and they were well-positioned for the bowl prior to the play of conference title games on Saturday. Ole Miss (No. 13) ranked ahead of SEC East champion Florida (No. 18) in last week's playoff rankings. Florida’s loss to Alabama in the SEC championship game all but assured Ole Miss of its bid. The Sugar Bowl, a New Year’s Six game, is required to take the top-ranked SEC team not in the playoff.

Ole Miss last appeared in the Sugar Bowl in the 1969-70 season. Ole Miss took down Arkansas, 27-22, in the game, led by quarterback Archie Manning, then a junior. Manning had 302 total yards and a touchdown.

Fast forward to 2015 and the Rebels are 9-3 on the season, including a 6-2 SEC record. They won back-to-back games to finish the year, including a 38-27 shellacking of in-state rival Mississippi State in Starkville Nov. 28.

“We’re totally honored to accept the invitation to the Allstate Sugar Bowl,” Freeze said. “Growing up in these parts and hearing the stories of how the Ole Miss people feel about this bowl, we’re really pumped about bringing our fans and our team to participate in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Really, really honored and excited about this opportunity.

“After we were able to win the Magnolia Bowl and the Egg Bowl, felt like we were in a really good position. It was very hard to contain the excitement and enthusiasm and anticipation of it finally coming to fruition. You didn’t know exactly how the SEC championship was going to go, so I watched it fairly closely (Saturday). After that was over, we felt confident this is where we’d be heading. It’s great it’s finally official and we can celebrate with our team, our coaches, our administration and our great fans. This is something, next to being in the playoffs, this has to be the pinnacle of everything you could accomplish next to that. The Sugar Bowl means so much to the Ole Miss family.”

Ole Miss was led all season by transfer quarterback Chad Kelly, a Manning Award finalist, who was the SEC leader in passing (311.7 yards per game), total offense (347.3 yards per game) and points responsible for (222). He ranked in the Top 10 in the nation in all three, and he’s already broken school records for total offense (4,167), passing yards (3,740), touchdowns responsible for (37) and 300-yard passing games (7) - all of which were formally held by the elder manning and his decorated son, Eli. Kelly is on pace to break as many as 10 more Ole Miss individual single-season marks. His 4,167 total yards is the sixth-most in an individual season in SEC history.

Ole Miss is averaging a conference-leading 40.3 points per game - good for 13th in the nation - and the Rebels have scored at least 50 points four times. They've scored a program-record 62 touchdowns, and they're tops in the SEC with 6,177 total yards. 

“I’ve seen them play just a little bit,” Gundy said. “Obviously we don’t get crossover tape on them. There are times when we're playing a night game or so on and so forth that I did see some of their games. I’m very aware of their defense and their defensive line. I’ve watched them a little bit. Laquon Treadwell, we’re familiar with him. He visited here. At one point we thought we had a chance to get him here to Oklahoma State. The quarterback that came in from junior college a year ago (Kelly), we saw him out on the recruiting trail. We follow coach Freeze from a distance and are very aware of what they’ve accomplished at Ole Miss.”

Adding even more intrigue to the game, the Sugar Bowl will likely mark the end for at least juniors Laquon Treadwell, Robert Nkemdiche and Laremy Tunsil, the decorated trio signed in the class of 2013. All are expected to be first-round picks in the 2016 NFL Draft in the spring, with Yahoo! going so far as to project all three as Top 5 selections.

“I don’t think anyone can argue the legacy they’ve left,” Freeze said. “It’s probably unparalleled in modern times. It’s just a few kids that get mentioned in that, but just those alone can’t do it. There’s so much more to that, and we’ve got to continue to generate the recruiting of players like that in order to be successful and create a depth chart that rivals the nation’s best teams. When you have some injuries, that depth chart is vital. Those guys have helped set a standard that should allow us to continue to recruit at a very high level and build that depth chart to where it rivals some of the nation’s best.”

Treadwell, a Biletnikoff finalist, sits first in the conference in receiving yards (1,082), while his 76 catches are good for second. He also has eight touchdowns, and his six 100-yard receiving games are a school record. Nkemdiche, a Hornung Award finalist, has 26 tackles (seven for loss) and three sacks, having set career highs in tackles for loss and sacks in his junior season. He totaled four tackles and 1.5 sacks against Mississippi State en route to SEC co-defensive lineman of the week honors. 

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