Ole Miss senior Fullback Jason Cook didn't know if he would ever see the day when one of his Rebel teams would be in the postseason picture.
During his career, the disappointments have far outweighed the successes, but when the clock ticked down against UL-Monroe for the Rebs' sixth win of the season and Jason realized his final Ole Miss team would be playing one more game after the regular season, the usually unflappable Cook could not contain himself.
He was waving to what remained of the sparse crowd and hugging everyone in sight.
"Five years - a lot of blood, sweat and tears went into getting to that point," Cook reflected. "When it comes to football, I have never been happier.
"It is a huge relief just to be able to say we are bowl eligible."
As happy as Cook was and still is, he quickly turned his attention to the immediate future.
Like a man needing water, the first gulp is not enough.
"As happy as we were and are, we don't want to stop at just being bowl eligible," Cook continued. "Now the goal is to continue to play at a high level, win and improve our bowl position. In other words, we are happy with six wins, but we are a long way from satisfied with that."
Jason knows the road gets no easier.
The Rebels are faced with invading Baton Rouge and taking on always-tough LSU, a team that actually has a better record (7-3) than the Rebs, but you wouldn't know it by the vibe coming from South Lousiana.
"They are 7-3 and mad," Cook laughed. "That, in itself, tells you all you need to know about their program. They are the defending national champions. The bottom line, it's LSU. Year-in and year-out, they are a tremendous program, one of the best in the country. As the saying goes, they don't rebuild, they reload.
"They always have high-caliber athletes and good coaches. When you play them, you know going in it's going to be a dogfight. It's one of those games where the last man standing wins. We know it's going to be hardball for 60 minutes and we wouldn't have it any other way. Nothing worthwhile is easy and we don't expect this game to be."
Jason said nobody on the Rebel team is "fooled" by the poor-mouthing coming from Baton Rouge.
"Hey, we watch film. We watch games when we are not playing. Those guys are as good as anyone on any given Saturday, they have just come up short three times, just like we have come up short four times," Jason explained. "We have no illusions that LSU is going to roll over for us and we are getting prepared for that challenge."
Jason believes playing in The Swamp and in Tuscaloosa in tough games - one a win and one a close loss - has helped prepare the Rebels for Death Valley, but he says nothing really compares to the level of noise the Rebs will hear Saturday afternoon.
"I have played in Neyland, at Auburn, The Swamp, in Tuscaloosa, but there is no place like Baton Rouge. The rowdiness of the fans and the constant level of the crowd noise is like no other," he stated. "You have to be able to block it out and do your job. I'm telling our guys who have never been there that it takes a higher level of focus to block all that out. I think everyone understands what we are facing."
The Rebs' three-game winning streak has been a total team effort, but one of the main factors for the recent success has been the improvement of the Rebel running game.
"The offensive line is playing the best they have all season and have gotten better each week. Mo Miller, John Jerry, Daverin Geralds, Reid Neely, Darryl Harris and Michael Oher are all playing really, really good football.
"And the backs are now running downhill. Early in the year, I think they were feeling their way a little. Now they are just turning loose," Cook said. "They are attacking the line and attacking defenders. It's pretty cool to lead the way for them when they are running that hard. And the real good part of it is we can run several backs at defenses and keep everyone fresh. We have a lot of confidence in all our backs."
And then there is the ace in the hole, so to speak - Dexter McCluster. Even though the hole card has been exposed and everyone knows Dexter is now more a tailback than a WR, the shifty scatback still gives the Rebels a different dimension and look.
"Dex has a different kind of speed and vision. He's unbelievable. He gives us an extra umph. The cat can straight up fly and he makes cuts that you can't believe he made when you see it on film," Jason assessed. "He makes us a lot more potent with the dimension he adds."
Cook was held out of most of the UL-Monroe game as a precaution because of a mild concussion he had against Auburn two weeks ago, but wild horses will not be able to hold him back from playing against the Tigers.
"The headaches are gone and I am fine. I could have played more against Monroe, but the coaches didn't want to take any chances with my health and I appreciate that," he closed. "But I can tell you this, I will be on the field against LSU. There is no doubt about that.
"As far as I am concerned, this is as big as any game of my career to this point and I am going to do everything I humanly can to help this team win."
Bowl eligible is nice. Bowl prominent is even better.
Jason Cook -
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