Like peers from other football programs in the SEC West Division, players from Ole Miss spoke confidently Thursday about the possibility of winning an SEC or national championship this season.
Unlike everyone else, the Rebels credited players and coaches from TCU, the preseason pick to win this year’s Big 12 title, with helping them understand what it takes to reach the next level.
For those with short memories, TCU throttled Ole Miss 42-3 in the Peach Bowl to end last season. The 39-point margin matched Oregon’s 59-20 rout of Florida State (Rose Bowl) as the most lopsided result of college football’s postseason slate.
While the Horned Frogs rode the momentum of that triumph to the No. 3 spot in the final Associated Press rankings, setting the stage for even loftier expectations in 2015, the Rebels seethed and went back to work.
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But it wasn’t easy. That loss left a scar on the psyche of an Ole Miss defense that still led the nation in scoring defense (16.0 points per game) despite the debacle against TCU.
“It stuck around for a while,” said defensive back Mike Hilton, one of seven returning starters from the defense gutted by the Frogs’ offense. “This summer, we’ve really been using it as motivation. That clearly wasn’t our best performance. So we’ve been thriving this whole summer on getting back to that mentality of finishing games and making sure it’s on our shoulders that we don’t let the offense score.”
Linebacker C.J. Johnson said: “You definitely use it as summer fuel. To play the way that we played, we use that as fire for us.”
Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, in turn, has spent several hours re-examining his postseason approach with an eye toward correcting the situation in a higher-profile bowl this season. Although some Frogs’ fans may chuckle at that last sentence, the bottom line shows Ole Miss with 18 returning starters from a 9-4 team (nine offensive, seven defensive, both kickers), the most of any school in the SEC West.
On paper, Ole Miss has more to recommend itself as an SEC title contender than blue-blood Alabama, one of the Rebels’ nine victims last season. But there is no returning starter at quarterback. And there are those ghosts in the back of Freeze’s head, placed there by TCU coach Gary Patterson and his crew.
“Credit goes to TCU for being a really good football team. But we obviously needed to compete better,” said Freeze, who still seems flummoxed, six months later, by the lopsided nature of that contest.
“I look very hard at what I did to prepare our team for that game, everything from what hotel you stayed in to how you practiced,” Freeze said. “I looked at all of that and we certainly will learn from that.”
Where that will carry the Rebels this season remains unclear. Media members selected Ole Miss to finish fifth in the seven-team West Division in balloting announced Thursday by SEC administrators. But every West school received multiple first-place votes from the 225 participants in the balloting. Ole Miss also earned three votes to win the SEC title.
So there is reason for optimism that the returning “Landsharks” who helped the Rebels finish 13th nationally in total defense (329 yards per game) will improve enough to allow Ole Miss to continue boosting its annual win totals under Freeze. The digits have climbed from seven (2012) to eight (2013) to nine (2014) in the coach’s three seasons at the school, with double-digit expectations for this season.
“We know what success tastes like coming out 7-0,” Hilton said, reflecting on last year’s blistering start. “But we’re ready to take that next step and hopefully get to the SEC championship and national championship. With the guys we have this year and the depth we have this year, we can do something special.”
Johnson said the Rebels’ goal in his senior season will be to “not only start fast, but also finish fast.”
Reality suggests those efforts will be aided by the fact there is no regular-season matchup against TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin, the Frogs’ Heisman Trophy candidate. Boykin threw for 187 yards and three touchdowns against the Rebels and averaged 6.5 yards per carry in the Peach Bowl.
Hilton said Boykin reminded him of Nick Marshall, the dual-threat quarterback who led Auburn to the national championship game that closed the 2013 season. Asked if Boykin is Heisman-worthy, Hilton said: “Yes, sir. He’s really good at what he does. He provides a running game and a throwing game. With the guys he has on the outside and the tempo they use, they’re a legit offense.”
The trick for Ole Miss will be fixing shortcomings exposed by TCU’s “legit offense” and making the corrections needed to elevate the Rebels into legit contenders in the SEC. It’s a motivational topic Ole Miss defenders have discussed every day, all summer.
Yep. Six months later, the mental scars are still fresh.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760