But when Ole Miss (8-4, 4-4) limped off the field following a 41-27 defeat at the hands of an inspired Bulldog bunch, those Orlando hopes were virtually dashed. Now the team faces bowl uncertainty, as the Rebels' postseason destination is very much up in the air.
"This is a sick feeling," Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt said of the loss. "This wasn't what we planned or the intentions we had for these guys. We wanted to go out the right way. You have to give (Mississippi State) credit. They did a good job today."
At intermission, it appeared the script was written up perfectly for an Ole Miss win.
Despite Mississippi State's best efforts in the first half, the Rebels led 13-10. The in-state rival had thrown all they had at Ole Miss, as State used a heightened level of intensity to keep the score within striking distance.
In the frame, MSU totaled 160 yards of total offense, including a mere 17 yards rushing by the Bulldogs' all-time rushing leader Anthony Dixon. Ole Miss was the better team. The second half would bear it out.
Or so we thought.
"I felt really good at half," Nutt said. "They had played with a bunch of emotion and we took their best shots. I really thought we were going to come out in the second half and control the football game."
But a third quarter dominated by Mississippi State proved to be more than enough. MSU notched 17 points in the decisive frame, while shutting out their opponents. With the Bulldogs instituting a varied option attack, they churned out rushing yard after rushing yard, while attempting only four passes.
Led by quarterback Chris Relf, who totaled 131 yards rushing in the game, the Bulldogs went on to produce 317 yards on the ground. Ole Miss was unable to contain Anthony Dixon as well, with the bruising back eclipsing 100 yards for the eighth time this season, Saturday with 133 yards on the ground. He also set the Mississippi State single-season rushing record in the effort, surpassing James Johnson for first place on the all-time rushing list with 1,391 yards.
It was the first time since 2004 that two Bulldogs topped 100 yards rushing. With another touchdown in the win, Dixon moved into sole possession of seventh place all-time in the SEC with 42 for his career.
And it was all jump-started in the third act.
"Those were the guys," Nutt said of Relf and Dixon. "They made the difference. (Relf) did a good job of mixing it up with some different schemes. They ran the option more than we anticipated. Relf was a load and we all knew about Dixon. They basically ran the wishbone. It caused us some problems today. They controlled the clock. That's a good one-two punch."
Defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix said the Rebels were prepared for the option. The problem, however, was in execution.
"We prepared for it, but we didn't do a good job defending it today," he said. "The problem was all 11 guys not playing to their responsibility. We had poor tackling. Anytime you have guys with that ability who can run the football that changes you defensively from a schematic standpoint."
Of course, Ole Miss came within seven points at 27-20 on the first play of the fourth quarter. But the comeback attempt would be for naught. The Rebels were physically dominated on both sides of the line of scrimmage for much of the afternoon, as MSU outgained Ole Miss 412-385 in the effort.
"I told our guys, I want them to suck in this feeling," said Nutt. "Our younger guys, this is a bad feeling. All I can do is ask them to play as hard as they can play. They've been doing it for me all year."
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