The Rebels are set to host No. 1 Alabama Saturday at 2:30 p.m. on CBS, a little over a week after opening the 2016 season against now-No. 2 ranked Florida State. And come kickoff, they’ll become one of just 12 high-major teams in the history of the Associated Press poll to play two Top 5 opponents in a three-game stretch to start the year.
The last time it happened was North Carolina in 2001. The last time it happened in the SEC was LSU in 1981. The Tar Heels and Tigers lost both games, as did six others. Or, put simply, eight of 11 — meaning the Rebels will have to buck history.
“With us having already suffered some injuries that hurt us, this stretch is very critical,” Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze said. “You sure hope we come out of this stretch without anymore than what we’ve already suffered. No question, it can prepare you or it can take a toll on you.
“We played No. 2 Florida State very well for a half. You’ve got to finish those games. This is another measuring stick, for sure.”
Ole Miss jumped out to a 28-6 lead on Florida State, only to watch the Seminoles storm back for a 45-34 win. The Rebels bounced back with a 38-13 win over Wofford and enter play with an overall record of 1-1.
So, win or lose, they won’t be able to join Northwestern, the only school to win both games. The Wildcats opened the 1959 season with a 45-13 win over No. 2 Oklahoma, and followed with a 14-10 win over No. 5 Iowa.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to prove how good we are,” tight end Evan Engram said. “The loss against Florida State hurt, but this is an opportunity for us to get back into the talks, and up in the playoff rankings. But it’s just a great opportunity. We love competition, love playing big guys, love being the underdog. We love proving ourselves, and it’s really not proving ourselves for anybody else. It’s proving our worth to ourselves. All the work we have put in, and to be it on the field together as brothers, that’s what we love to do against top talented teams.”
“It’s been good though,” quarterback Chad Kelly said of the early-season stretch. “We had a tough loss against Florida State. In a short week we were able to come back against Wofford, who was a pretty tough difficult team to prepare for with a lot of the things they did. But now we’re on to a great team like Alabama. Good thing we’ve already played them before so we kind of know how they play a little bit. They’ve got great players, so we’ll have to have a great week of practice and understand it comes down to execution.”
Ole Miss will cap its grueling September slate against No. 16 Georgia next week.
“It’s not much fun, for sure,” Freeze said. “The Saturdays are. We’ll be excited to compete this Saturday. But you know the games can go either way. You can’t circle them and say we’re supposed to win any of the three games in September that we have outside of our 1-AA opponent. You don’t have much room for error, and then you put in there that you’ve lost some key people, it’s a tall challenge.”