Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze
Saturday night is a big night for Ole Miss football.
Aside from Texas A&M, which joined the SEC in 2012, the Rebels are the only SEC West team to have never played in the SEC Championship Game since its inception in 1992.
The No. 21 Rebels can take a major step forward toward clearing that hurdle in Tuscaloosa on Saturday against the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide.
In addition to clearing that hurdle, the 3-0 Rebels can move to 4-0 for the first time since the Manning era. Not the Eli Manning era, the Archie Manning era.
The patriarch of football's first family and College Football Hall of Fame member was the quarterback of the Rebels from 1968-70, finished fourth in Heisman Trophy voting in 1969 (Oklahoma running back Steve Owens won it) and third in 1970 behind the winner, Stanford quarterback Jim Plunkett. Manning led the Rebels to three straight bowl games, including the 1970 Sugar Bowl following the 1969 season.
After a few decades of stewing in relative anonymity, the Rebels could earn a big tiebreaker over Alabama in the SEC West race and evolve from "upstart" to "front-runner" with a win on Saturday.
With so much on the line, is this the biggest game since the Archie Manning era?
The undefeated Rebels have arguably more momentum than any team in college football. A 7-6 record that included close losses to LSU and Texas A&M in 2012 was capped off with the eighth-best recruiting class in the country in 2013, according to 247Sports.com.
The talent injection, which featured defensive end Robert Nkemdiche and wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, added to a veteran roster that included 18 starters returning from the 2012 squad. There's talent, there's experience, there's energy and there's familiarity in Oxford.
That's a recipe for success.
On top of that, these Rebels are confident. Treadwell predicted an upset on Twitter this past Monday, according to Bleacher Report's Alex Sims, and quarterback Bo Wallace said that his wide receivers are better than Texas A&M's, according to Michael Casagrande of AL.com.
"I think we have better receivers than A&M," Wallace said. "They want to talk about Mike Evans being so good, but we have Donte (Moncrief) and I think Laquon (Treadwell) is going to be that way. We have better players on the outside than A&M does."
If you recall, Evans and Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel torched Alabama's secondary for 464 passing yards in a 49-42 loss earlier this month.
While the stakes are high for Ole Miss on Saturday, it's not the biggest game since the Archie Manning era. The biggest game for Ole Miss since Archie involved one of his sons, Eli.
Is this the biggest game for Ole Miss since the Archie Manning era?
No. 18 Ole Miss hosted then-No. 2 LSU on Nov. 22, 2003 with a chance to lock up the division title. Down 10 in the fourth quarter, Eli Manning led the Rebels on a nine-play, 76-yard drive early in the fourth to cut the Tiger lead to 17-14 with 10 minutes and 51 seconds to play.
After forcing the Tigers to a three-and-out, Manning again led the Rebels on a march downfield, going 68 yards on nine plays before the drive stalled on the LSU 18-yard line. But Jonathan Nichols missed the potential game-tying field goal from 36 yards out with 4:15 to play.
Two more Ole Miss possessions went nowhere, and LSU—led by then-head coach Nick Saban—escaped Oxford and went on to win the BCS National Championship.
For Ole Miss, a division title was on the line that night, making it a much bigger game than Saturday's showdown with top-ranked Alabama.
Still, for the Rebels, it's an opportunity to step into the national spotlight by interrupting the Alabama dynasty. By doing so, they can put themselves in position to play in the biggest game since Archie—say, perhaps, Oct. 19 versus LSU?
Win or lose on Saturday, the future looks bright for Ole Miss. The thought of playing for the SEC Championship in the not-too-distant future seems more realistic than it has ever been.
Not many people saw that coming a year ago.