Freeze and players believe focus, preparation a step above last bowl season

NEW ORLEANS - A blowout loss in the Peach Bowl is long gone but not forgotten for Ole Miss.

The Rebels (9-3) are a day away from taking on Oklahoma State (10-2) in the Sugar Bowl Jan. 1 at 7:30 p.m. on ESPN. Ole Miss is one of only five programs in the country to play in back-to-back New Year’s Six games, but the Rebels hope the final result is much different this time around. 

TCU routed Ole Miss, 42-3, and head coach Hugh Freeze spent a full year hoping for another opportunity. Well, that opportunity has arrived, and the team-wide approach has been significantly different.

“Our practices have been energetic, nobody’s dragging around,” Freeze said. “That was one of my deals. We’ll cut going out altogether if we’re not bringing it in practice. That’s kind of what happened at the Peach Bowl. We just tried to drag through so we can go out again.”

Freeze said the attitude and commitment to practice has been night-and-day different from last season, a sentiment his players have echoed. The first change was the practice schedule. Ole Miss held a full week’s worth of practices in Oxford before breaking for Christmas. The Rebels reported for the Sugar Bowl Dec. 26.

He also put together a “leadership council” consisting of well-established team leaders C.J. Johnson, Justin Bell, Evan Engram, Mike Hilton and Trae Elston. The council set the curfew for the week in New Orleans, which varied except for the last two days when curfew was set for midnight.

“We have had very, very few incidents,” Freeze said. “I’ve laid my expectations out very, very clear to our team of the reason we’re here. We’ll have an opportunity to come back to New Orleans and enjoy yourself for a good part of your life if you choose. You will not have the opportunity to come back and play in a game of the magnitude of the Sugar Bowl.”

“The first day we got back for bowl practice, coach Freeze set the tone of what our expectations are,” Engram said. “We’re here to have fun, but we’re not here to sightsee. We’re not here to walk around all big-eyed like we’ve never been here before. We went through all that last year. I feel like the message was clear, and I feel like it’s resonated in our minds with our whole team in how we’ve been practicing and staying away from distractions. We’ve been really locked into what our goal is here. I feel it’s a couple of steps higher than what our mindset was last year.”

Freeze said, if nothing else, the council has allowed for both sides - coach and players - a chance to gain perspective.

“We’ve met daily since we have been here to go over the next day and to hear if anything is going on with our team that I need to know about,” he said. “And I think that has been helpful to me as a coach to see things from their perspective, and then also for them to see it from my perspective, to be able to be a voice for me, you know, in those small circles that tend to happen in teams.”

Of course, the week hasn’t been all business. A number of players - including all five council members, as well as Laquon Treadwell, Laremy Tunsil and others, - visited a local children’s hospital Wednesday. Engram spoke at an FCA breakfast with Ole Miss great Archie Manning. The Rebels dined and toured the the National WWII Museum, and they were even entertained by a snake charmer and a magician one night. Plus, the team hotel, the Hilton - New Orleans Convention Center, is located directly across the street from Harrah’s Casino. Bourbon Street is but a short walk away, too.

But Freeze said there have only been two curfew violations, both of which he classified as “minor.” And the punishments, he said, were “very severe.”

“Everybody’s mind is on this game,” junior defensive tackle D.J. Jones said. “I’m not going to lie, first day, you’re in New Orleans. Most people haven’t been to New Orleans. Everybody went out as a team, enjoyed themselves. But I feel like everybody’s mind is on the game now.”

“The whole process has felt different,” Bell said. “I feel like we got more work in this year around. We were more focused, and I just feel like we had more enthusiasm. The seniors, the leaders on this team, we made sure that the atmosphere was great all the way around, and we made sure everybody was tuned into what they had to do.”

Ole Miss is making its fourth-straight bowl appearance, and its first appearance in the Sugar Bowl. The Rebels are tied for 10th all-time among Division-I teams with 23 bowl victories.

And if the last few weeks are any indication, they’ll have a good chance at adding No. 24 against Oklahoma State. Because the focus has been there.

“We practiced really hard,” Johnson said. “You can tell there’s obviously a different emphasis on trying to win the game more than just being here. I think that’s a good sign.”

“We may get beat,” Freeze said, “but I believe with all my heart we’re prepared.”

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