Who is the SEC West’s best team through Week 8? Many will tell you its surging Alabama, while LSU is its sole unbeaten.
And yes, despite a lackluster, three-game stretch that included two losses, Ole Miss faces a final month in which it controls its championship destiny.
Because the Rebels still face LSU head-to-head — Nov. 21 in Oxford, following a bye week — their road to Atlanta and the SEC Championship Game is direct.
Saturday’s 23-3 defeat of Texas A&M essentially eliminated the Aggies from the title conversation in the SEC West, barring unprecedented upheaval in the final month. Head coach Hugh Freeze got exactly the kind of performance he needed from his team after a series of uninspired performances since upsetting Alabama in Tuscaloosa on Sept. 19.
“During adversity in life you find out a lot about people,” Freeze said in his postgame press conference, via OleMissSports.com. “That is what we challenged our kids with this week. We said if you play out of love and passion for 60 minutes, then that will be good enough at the end of the day for us.”
The Rebels’ brand of adversity in a narrow win over Vanderbilt, a blowout loss at Florida and a two-touchdown defeat to Memphis may have been self-inflicted. Perhaps the Gators and Tigers were simply the better teams.
Either way, Ole Miss responded resoundingly Saturday, putting together its most impressive effort since the defeat of Alabama. The play of the defense, in holding Texas A&M’s typically prolific offense to just three points, was Ole Miss’ best dating back to the first half of the 2014 season.
The Landshark defense had been rendered toothless against Florida and Memphis, which combined to score 75 points on Ole Miss.
Saturday marked a return to a more aggressive style, with the secondary in particular stepping up to limit Texas A&M’s stellar wide-receiving corps.
Aggies pass-catchers combined for just 134 yards receiving, made all the more impressive by the complete lack of a run game Texas A&M was able to mount.
A&M finished with just 58 yards on the ground, the lowest output allowed by Ole Miss this season. For a team ranked No. 35 nationally against the run coming into Saturday’s contest, that milestone is especially meaningful.
It’s also a positive trend heading into the critical, final month of SEC play, which begins next week at Auburn.
For its struggles, which are plentiful, Auburn’s run the ball effectively enough, particularly Peyton Barber.
Barber went for 120 yards and four touchdowns in the Tigers’ Week 8 loss to Arkansas.
Auburn is a prelude to the aforementioned Nov. 21 date with LSU, and the stiffest test the Ole Miss run defense will have faced since Derrick Henry paced Alabama to 216 rushing yards on Sept. 19.
Stopping, or even slowing LSU running back Leonard Fournette is the puzzle no opposing defensive coordinator has been able to solve.
Ole Miss’ own puzzle is one of the most quizzical in college football. The Rebels have alternated between explosive offense, putting up 76 and 73 in the opening two weeks, as well as 43 against the vaunted Alabama defense, to gasping for points in more recent weeks.
Similarly, the defense fluctuated between impenetrable and porous.
So long as Freeze and Co. put it together for this stretch run, Ole Miss has its path to Atlanta. It’s just a matter of avoiding any hazards along the way.