Ole Miss came down with a bad case of “never been there before-itis” at the end of Saturday night’s pivotal SEC West game at LSU.
You can’t exactly blame the Rebels for that.
Ole Miss, along with Mississippi State, is the feel-good story of this college football season. But the down side to being thrust into the national title race, without any track record of being in a national title race, is you can’t predict what your players – or in the case of Ole Miss, your coach – are going to do when the pressure’s turned up.
Down 10-7, with 9 seconds left, in the most difficult environment in college football, the Rebels panicked. Coach Hugh Freeze made one mistake and then his quarterback, Bo Wallace, compounded it, sending the third-ranked Rebels (7-1) to their first loss of the season.
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No. 1 Mississippi State (7-0) avoided a similar fate, in a tight road game at Kentucky, but quarterback Dak Prescott noticed the Bulldogs, who ended up with 45-31 win, weren’t the same team from the first six games of the season.
“I don’t know if ‘tight’ is the word, but something was different about us,” Prescott told USA Today. “We weren’t the same. We didn’t have the same vibe, the same attitude, but we got back to it. We got the win. That’s really all that matters at the end of the day.”
Ole Miss wishes it could say the same.
Wallace actually made a smart play to get the Rebels down to the LSU 25-yard line. His 8-yard scramble stopped the clock with Ole Miss out of timeouts and gave kicker Gary Wunderlich a chance to send the game into overtime with a 42-yard field goal.
That’s when Freeze lost his mind. Instead of immediately sending out the field-goal unit, Freeze hesitated then finally rushed the offense off the field.
By the time Wunderlich, who wasn’t exactly moving with any urgency, got lined up, the play clock ran out. The 5-yard delay of game penalty pushed the attempt back, but still, the kick was Ole Miss’ best shot at overtime.
Well, at least that was obvious to everyone but Freeze, who sent the offense back out to try to get Wunderlich closer. Wallace then proceeded to throw the most predictable interception ever, forcing a throw into double coverage inside the 5-yard line.
Wallace bolted for the locker room and the Rebels slumped out of Death Valley with a loss; no shame there, LSU rarely losses at home at night (46-3), but it was a bad indication of how Ole Miss will handle the pressure down the stretch of the regular season.
One loss does not eliminate you from the College Football Playoff. No one, anywhere, understands this better than Alabama coach Nick Saban. Two of Saban’s three national titles with the Tide have come after a November loss in SEC play.
Saban’s true coaching genius is that he gets his team to perform at the same level almost every week. Alabama (7-1), which lost at Ole Miss on Oct. 4, is now back in position to win the SEC West. The Tide will have to win at LSU on Nov. 8, but Mississippi State and Auburn have to come to Tuscaloosa, Ala., in November.
Freeze has a chance to regroup his team – Auburn and Mississippi State have to go to Oxford, Miss. – but the Rebels are going to have to learn from Saturday’s mistakes and avoid repeating them.