There may not be a team in college football that has given its fans as much heartaches this season as the Ole Miss Rebels.
Less than two weeks removed from blowing a three-touchdown lead to No. 2 Florida State in the season opener, Ole Miss endured a similar fate on Saturday afternoon against top-ranked Alabama. The Rebels jumped out to an early 24-3 lead, opening the door for a third straight upset of the reigning national champions, but after hinting at the notion in their disastrous 2016 debut, Ole Miss confirmed with yet another meltdown that it was never ready for the big-time.
The Rebels proceeded to allow the Crimson Tide to rattle off a 45-6 run on their way to a 48-43 victory that was not as close as the score would indicate. The collapse effectively placed any Ole Miss College Football Playoff aspirations on life support, with little hope for a revival.
Saturday’s loss put the Rebels in unfortunate company, making them the only Power Five team of the past decade to surrender two 21-point leads in the same season. It is a remarkable mix of “sad and astonishing” that Ole Miss has managed to accomplish this feat in a span of 12 days.
It is impossible to place blame for these losses on any particular source. The offensive line has failed to provide consistent protection, a fault that has continuously disrupted momentum early in this season. The Ole Miss rushing attack is once again nonexistent. Having been outscored 40-3 in the third quarters of these (Florida State and Bama) contests, the defense certainly shoulders a portion of the blame.
Ultimately, the most notable shortcomings derive from the program’s most prominent figures — head coach Hugh Freeze and quarterback Chad Kelly.
The sole reason why Ole Miss entered the season as a potential contender in the SEC West was the arm of Kelly. In the early goings of these top-five showdowns, the NFL-caliber play of the senior allowed the Rebels to jump out to leads of 22 and 21 points, respectively. As the games wore on, though, a penchant for untimely turnovers proved costly.
In the second halves of these losses to Florida State and Alabama, Kelly has turned the ball over five times. Even more troubling, these turnovers have resulted in a combined 27 points allowed. Both of his turnovers on Saturday, a fumble and an interception, were returned for touchdowns. On each occasion, Kelly’s mistakes were produced by a combination of defensive pressure and horrendous pocket awareness.
Yet, as much as Kelly did to bring about Saturday’s loss to the Crimson Tide, and as comically awful as Ole Miss has played down the stretch this season, the head coach deserves the brunt of the backlash for an embarrassingly inept second-half performance. Whether it has been questionable play-calling or a mind-blowing lack of team-wide composure, Freeze has simply appeared incapable of coaching with a lead.
Saturday’s game showed why the Rebels were never a real contender in the SEC West, much less the College Football Playoff picture. Ole Miss has fielded arguably its best team in recent memory, but as the season has unfolded, it is clear that the Rebels do not possess the mental edge of a champion.