One month ago, Ole Miss appeared to have arrived as a College Football Playoff contender. Following a 43-37 win at Alabama, the Rebels’ second consecutive win over the Crimson Tide, Hugh Freeze’s group rose to No. 3 nationally and looked to be on a perfect course to build on 2014’s nine-win season and Peach Bowl appearance.
Four weeks later, however, that big win looks far more like an anomaly than a trend. An ugly 38-10 loss at Florida exposed the Rebels on both sides of the ball, and Saturday’s 37-24 loss at Memphis only further underscored the point: Freeze’s team simply isn’t ready to compete for a College Football Playoff berth, much less the SEC West title.
While there is no shame in losing on the road to the 6-0 Tigers, one of the best Group of Five programs and a strong contender for a New Year’s Six bowl bid, it isn’t something that a serious SEC contender or playoff contender does.
In fact, it was the Rebels’ first loss to an unranked non-SEC opponent since Oct. 16, 1976, when the Rebs lost to then-independent South Carolina, 10-7. It was Memphis’ first win over a ranked foe since defeating Peyton Manning-quarterbacked Tennessee in 1996, and the Tigers’ first win over Ole Miss since 2004.
Saturday’s loss was particularly inexplicable when you consider how it unfolded. Twenty seconds into the game, the Rebels led 7-0 following Laquon Treadwell’s 68-yard touchdown pass, and quickly extended that lead to 14-0.
But the Tigers scored 31 unanswered points to take control against an Ole Miss defense that looked lost without star defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, who was sidelined with a concussion suffered while playing as a tailback. “I wasn’t so sure we struggled as much up front as we did on the backend,” Freeze told reporters, per Daniel Paulling of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. “It didn’t help to lose him, but I don’t know that was the reason.”
Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch skewered the Rebel D for 384 yards and three touchdowns on 39-of-53 completions. The Tigers controlled the second half, complete with a last-second interception of quarterback Chad Kelly that sent the Memphis band and crowd into a spirited rendition of Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” as the final seconds ticked away.
It was surely a humbling comedown for a program that now looks like a fringe Top 25 team. Kelly did his part, throwing for 372 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions, but Ole Miss was simply unable to generate any sort of rushing offense. Jaylen Walton led the way with just 39 yards on seven carries.
Ole Miss couldn’t generate consistent offense against a Memphis defense that was just average, allowing 26.8 points per game (No. 71 nationally) entering the game. With Texas A&M on the schedule next week and LSU set for Nov. 21, not to mention a trip to an improving Auburn Tigers team on Halloween, that’s a major concern.
The Rebels have Alabama figured out, although last month’s win was fueled by five Alabama turnovers and an incredibly fluky 66-yard touchdown pass that caromed high off a helmet and into a Rebel receiver’s arms, but little else.
Beating the Crimson Tide is nice, but it loses its meaning when accompanied by a lack of overall consistency. Until the Rebels figure that out, they’ll simply be flashy afterthoughts in the national picture.