OXFORD — Hugh Freeze’s first season at Mississippi could be described as wildly successful or a crushing letdown.
It’s not a paradox. It’s the strange reality the Rebels have entered after greatly overachieving through the first two months of the season before blowing back-to-back fourth quarter leads in losses to Vanderbilt and LSU over the past two weeks.
Those losses have kept Ole Miss (5-6, 2-5 Southeastern Conference) one win away from bowl eligibility for the first time since 2009. Now the Rebels have one more chance to qualify for the postseason when they host Mississippi State (8-3, 4-3) on Saturday in the Egg Bowl at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
“The most pleasant surprise and the most difficult (challenge) is that we’re sitting here with five wins and haven’t gotten that sixth one,” Freeze said.
It certainly hasn’t been a boring season.
The Rebels have dramatically improved after a 2-10 record in 2011. Led by Freeze’s fast-paced, no-huddle offense, they’ve been involved in a handful of thrillers, including a 30-27 win over Arkansas on Oct. 27 that ended on a game-winning field goal.
But most of the close games have turned out to be heartbreakers.
Ole Miss blew a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter against Texas A&M and coughed up a 17-point second-half lead against Vanderbilt. The latest agonizing moment was Saturday’s 41-35 loss to No. 7 LSU. The Rebels appeared to be in control in the fourth quarter before giving up an 89-yard punt return to LSU’s Odell Beckham, Jr., which sparked the Tigers’ late rally.
So once again, Ole Miss will have to bounce back from disappointment.
Quarterback Bo Wallace insists the team hasn’t lost any confidence or momentum.
“It’s not hard because we’re one game away (from a bowl) and it’s against these guys,” Wallace said. “You don’t like (Mississippi State) a lot and it’s a chance to get the sixth win. There’s so much relying on this game.”
Wallace grew up in Pulaski, Tenn., but has watched the Egg Bowl rivalry from afar for years. He was recruited heavily by both Mississippi State and Ole Miss before settling on the Rebels after a stellar season at East Mississippi Community College.
“I don’t have words to express how excited I am to get out and play for this university,” Wallace said. “It’s different. Everybody is locked in with attention to detail and execution.”
Freeze said he understands why there is concern that his team might be mentally worn out. But there should be plenty of motivation for this Egg Bowl.
Ole Miss has lost three straight in the series, which is the program’s worst skid since the 1940s. Mississippi State has done a decent amount of trash talking during their three victories, led by brash fourth-year coach Dan Mullen.
“We’ve been waiting on this game all season, and we’re ready to play,” Ole Miss safety Cody Prewitt said. “It means everything to me. It’s pride, it’s dignity, it means so much.”
Pride and effort haven’t been a problem for Ole Miss this season. Depth and execution have been.
The Rebels have dealt with several injuries — especially in the secondary — and are playing several freshmen and sophomores on both sides of the ball.
But they haven’t used that as an excuse, going toe to toe with some of the best teams in the country. LSU was the latest team to find out just how far Ole Miss has come.
Tigers’ coach Les Miles openly admitted the Rebels were better for much of last Saturday afternoon.
But Ole Miss has found out the hard way that three quarters of good football isn’t enough to win. Now the Rebels have one more chance to get it right.
“We have to play our best football in the fourth quarter,” Ole Miss linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche said. “... We have to man up and just do it. It’s hard but it’s part of the game. It’s the way to go to a bowl. We have to stand up to that challenge.”