OXFORD — Two victories this season have helped soothe some of the University of Mississippi football program’s embarrassment after an abysmal 2011 season.
Now the No. 14 University of Texas is coming to town.
Ole Miss (2-0) will play host to Texas (2-0) on Saturday at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in the first meeting between the programs since 1966. It’s a major opportunity for the Rebels to show their program is on the right track under first-year coach Hugh Freeze.
For Texas, it’s another game to show its rebuilding days are over.
“When it comes to these games, you shouldn’t get nervous,” Ole Miss defensive back Charles Sawyer said. “It’s just another opportunity to show people what you’re made of — show what type of player you are. We can do that and make a good impression. This season could skyrocket.”
It won’t be easy; Ole Miss is a big underdog. The Rebels had a 2-10 record last season and the roster is still short on talent.
But the Rebels feel like they’ve got a chance thanks to a much-improved offense that’s gained more than 500 total yards in victories over Central Arkansas and UTEP. Junior quarterback Bo Wallace has received most of the credit for the fast start, completing 35 of 46 passes for 438 yards, five touchdowns and one interception. He also leads the team in rushing with 135 yards and two touchdowns.
Wallace got a look from Texas during when he was being recruited out of East Mississippi Community College last season, but never took a campus visit.
Like many of these inexperienced Rebels, this will be his first action in a marquee game. Freeze is trying to harness his team’s enthusiasm without letting it lead to distraction.
“Hopefully you won’t notice a difference,” Freeze said. “Saturday night there will be a little more excitement around. Our young kids will have to handle that emotionally and mentally. We won’t treat our preparation any differently.”
Texas is trying to continue its own mini-revival after two subpar seasons under veteran coach Mack Brown. The Longhorns beat Wyoming in their opener and dominated New Mexico last weekend 45-0, holding the Lobos to just 241 total yards.
Now they’re looking for a road win against a Southeastern Conference opponent.
Texas safety Adrian Phillips said the Longhorns don’t care about the Rebels from 2011 because this year’s team looks completely different.
“They’re a good team,” Phillips said. “I know that they’ve had some problems in the past, but that’s every team in America. So since they’re back on their horse, they’re trying to build the thing back up. So when we go in there, we just have to make sure that we’re on our stuff.”
The most watched matchup might be the Texas defense against Wallace.
Linebacker Jordan Hicks and defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat have made big plays in the backfield during the first two games, and the Longhorns will certainly attack a young Ole Miss offensive line as they try to disrupt Wallace.
Phillips said the defense has to make sure small pass completions — which is the foundation of the new Ole Miss offense — don’t turn into big gains.
Wallace is “making plays — that’s the biggest thing,” Phillips said. “He’s good at reading the holes and making people miss. We have to make sure we’re good at tackling and making contact.”
Texas has also had some early success on offense, led by sophomore quarterback David Ash. After an inconsistent freshman season, he’s shown considerable improvement in year two, completing 36 of 49 passes for 377 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
His performance has been one encouraging sign that the Longhorns are ready to return to the nation’s elite after a 13-12 record over the past two seasons.
“It’s amazing what a team can accomplish when no one cares who gets the credit,” Ash said.