Published on December 17th, 2015 | by Alex Thiel0
Ole Miss Rebels Take on Oklahoma State Cowboys in New Year’s Day Sugar Bowl
At a New Year’s party a few years ago, I was asked to make a toast for something that I’d like to see change in the coming year. I didn’t really have anything in mind that was original and party-appropriate, so I facetiously toasted to Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss’ newly-appointed football coach, that he may be “the next coming of Johnny Vaught.”
The table scoffed, as did I, but all the Rebels around the table raised a glass anyway, as they do every year. The Ole Miss Rebels weren’t playing in any bowl game that season, let alone a bowl on New Year’s Day. Such unprecedented success, at least in my lifetime, seemed all but impossible.
Fast forward to Coach Hugh Freeze’s fourth year at the helm, and the Rebs find themselves prepping for a Sugar Bowl berth for the first time since Archie Manning’s playing days.
“I still have to pinch myself sometimes,” said Freeze in a recent press conference. “It is definitely a bucket list deal for me and our program. The stories of Archie Manning leading Ole Miss to the Sugar Bowl are ones that I grew up with.”
This year’s Sugar Bowl pits the Rebels against their eternal consolation prize, Oklahoma State. The Cowboys are familiar bowl foes for Ole Miss fans, as the Rebels took them down in the Cotton Bowl after the 2003 and 2009 seasons.
Oklahoma State, led by head coach and self-professed 40-year-old-man Mike Gundy, started the season on a 10-0 tear before dropping some key conference games when it mattered most. Baylor’s loss to Texas – coupled with Oklahoma’s slot in the playoff – allowed the Cowboys to sneak into a New Year’s Six bowl despite their late-season fade.
As always under Gundy, the Cowboys feature a pass-first offense that will look to expose the Rebs’ inconsistent defensive secondary. It’s worth noting that Tony Conner will be sitting this game out due to surgery. However, Oklahoma State has similar defensive issues that Chad Kelly and the record-setting Ole Miss offense will look to exploit. Expect a lot of points in what should be one of this year’s more entertaining marquee bowl matchups.
In addition to some veteran senior playmakers such as RB Jaylen Walton and S Trae Elston, a second-team All-American this year, several key Rebel juniors will likely be suiting up in the Red and Blue for the final time before shoving off for the NFL. WR Laquon Treadwell and LT Laremy Tunsil are almost certainly first-round NFL draft locks. Both the 2003 and 2009 teams that defeated Oklahoma State were stockpiled with NFL talent, and this year’s Rebel squad is clearly no different.
While Junior DT Robert Nkemdiche boasts all the talent in the world, a recent fall from a window, coupled with a misdemeanor possession charge, may well keep him out of the bowl game. While his injuries appear to be minimal, Nkemdiche’s status will not be determined until the record is set straight and Freeze has a chance to talk personally with the former #1 high school recruit in the nation.
“When you and I grew up, we made our mistakes,” said Freeze, “but they weren’t on the front page of everything. Unfortunately, today, that is not the case. What kids do is well known.”
Nkemdiche’s status aside, it’s been a long time since a Rebel team was deep and talented enough to turn in a Sugar-Bowl worthy performance over the course of an entire season. Johnny Vaught was able to attract and coach the talent to win five Sugar Bowls during his illustrious tenure, the last of which was an Archie-led upset of Arkansas in 1970’s contest. With an incoming recruiting class that may match the star power of the 2013 class with a few lucky breaks, Freeze looks ready to cement a winning tradition of his own.
In addition to the buyout that comes with a second consecutive New Year’s Six bowl, the Rebs will also benefit from added practice time at home and in New Orleans. Freeze said that this year’s preparation would be much more simple and stationary than last year’s Peach Bowl practices, which ultimately resulted in a 42-3 loss at the hands of TCU.
“We are the home team, and we have first choice of practice [space],” said Freeze. “We’ll be in the Superdome.”