The Ole Miss Rebels open the 2013 season at Vanderbilt on August 29 in front of a national audience.
It's a game that will be featured as the night cap of ESPN's Thursday Night Football double-header (8:15 p.m. CT) to open the 2013 college football season. The Rebels and Commodores will face off after North Carolina plays at South Carolina earlier the same evening (5 p.m. CT).
For Ole Miss, their trip to Vandy will absolutely set the tone for their entire season.
Under James Franklin, Vanderbilt is performing at a level never before seen in Nashville. His club went to back-to-back bowl games for the first time in school history, won more games in SEC play than any Vanderbilt club since 1935 and reeled off seven straight wins to end the season, finishing with a 38-24 win over N.C. State in the Music City Bowl. These aren't your 'Dores of old, folks.
As for Ole Miss, their success against Vandy hasn't been great as of late. Despite the fact that the Rebels lead the all-time series 47-38-2 and are 22-6 at home against the Commodores, Ole Miss is 21-27-2 in road games versus their perennial Eastern Division foe.
It gets worse, too.
Since 2005, the Rebels are only 1-3 in road games against the 'Dores. Further, Vandy has won the past three games in the series and six of the last eight overall. It's certainly a trend Freeze would like to put an end to on August 29.
In fact, Ole Miss was well on its way to snapping the losing skid last season before Vandy QB Jordan Rodgers hit WR Chris Boyd for a late touchdown strike in Oxford. The 26-yard connection ultimately helped James Franklin's club overcome a 23-6 third-quarter deficit on their way to a 27-26 win.
For the Rebels, it was yet another second-half letdown. Earlier in the season, Ole Miss gave up a 10-point fourth-quarter lead at home to Kevin Sumlin's Texas A&M Aggies. It was a game Ole Miss would go on to lose 30-27. The very week after the Vanderbilt loss, the Rebels again suffered the same fate: an eventual 41-35 loss at LSU after leading by eight points entering the final quarter.
If Freeze's Rebs want to improve upon their surprising 7-6 campaign in 2012, finishing games in the fourth quarter will be absolutely vital. It's just that simple.
On the heels of a 2-10 season in 2011 and the firing of Houston Nutt, very little was expected of the Ole Miss Rebels in 2012. With a new head coach and coaching staff, three wins would have been good. However, a former high school girls basketball coach in Memphis, TN (Hugh Freeze at Briarcrest High School) had a different idea. Freeze, hired after being head coach at Arkansas State for only one season, led his troops to a 7-6 season that included a BBVA Compass Bowl win over the Pitt Panthers.
It was a remarkable turnaround and accomplishment, yet one that still went a little bit under the radar.
However, that all changed when Ole Miss inked ESPN's No. 5 recruiting class on February 6, 2013. Suddenly, Ole Miss was the talk of the nation on signing day. Even NBA star LeBron James was impressed, tweeting comments to his 7.5 million followers on Twitter.
Speed up to the present in early March, and Ole Miss is now being talked about among college football circles on a weekly basis. No, they're not being talked about in terms of winning the SEC next season—rather, the discussion is about where Freeze may be leading this team with his recruiting prowess.
Playing against a team they've struggled with in recent years (Vanderbilt), being on the road, competing in front of a nationally televised audience on the opening night of the season and possibly playing as a ranked team for the first time in years, the pressure will be enormous.
If Freeze can temper the excitement and expectations just enough to keep his kids grounded this spring and summer, then the Rebels could surprise the country with eight, nine or 10 wins in 2013.
A final reason the Vanderbilt game is so crucial to Ole Miss this season is that it's the first of three incredibly tough games within their first four contests. After traveling to Nashville on August 29, the Rebels come home for Southeast Missouri State before heading to play Texas on September 14. Following a short open week after Texas, Ole Miss then travels to Bryant-Denny Stadium for a tilt with Alabama.
Win in Nashville, and Ole Miss has a good shot to be 3-1 to start the season.
Lose in Nashville, and the Rebels could quite possibly be 1-3 heading to Auburn.
Come the end of the year, remember to look back at the Vanderbilt game when sizing up what kind of season Ole Miss had in 2013. Consider Vanderbilt the barometer for Ole Miss this season.