After kicking off the 2013 season on Thursday, University of Mississippi football coach Hugh Freeze watched a lot of football the next three days.
Freeze made a mental note that eight Football Championship Series teams defeated Football Bowl Championship Series squads.
It’s a good bet Freeze will hammer that point home between now and the 6 p.m. Saturday when Ole Miss plays host to against FCS opponent Southeast Missouri State University at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
“There’s a lot of D-IAA schools that beat D-I schools, so we will have to really prepare,” Freeze said Monday at his weekly on-campus media gathering. “Southern Missouri really eats the clock on offense, and it’s never fun preparing for an option-style team. It’s not something you look at every week.”
Ole Miss returned to the practice field Monday after the Labor Day weekend break. In addition to a brief workout Monday, the team made a couple of community service projects and took advantage of a day out of class.
On Thursday, Ole Miss rallied for a 39-35 Southeastern Conference victory against Vanderbilt University. The Rebels scored in the closing minutes to beat the Commodores for the first time since 2009.
“It felt good to get out there and play a game again,” said Ole Miss junior quarterback Bo Wallace, who threw for 283 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions. “Like any first game, there is a lot to clean up and a lot to improve on. Anytime you go on the road and get a win, it feels good.”
That mentality will be important because the Rebels play four of their first five games on the road. Freeze understands the honor of playing on national television on the opening night of the season, but he was wary of doing that against a conference opponent.
“There was definitely more pressure, and it adds a little higher focus level going into the season and in camp,” Freeze said. “The excitement level was higher as well. I think any time you get to put your kids on a national stage and the opening night of college football it’s something you have to do. If that means you have to play an SEC game to open, we’re all right with that. The great exposure we got and the great job by our fans traveling to a visiting stadium was all worth it.”
The victory wasn’t without sacrifice. Offensive lineman Aaron Morris is out for the season after tearing an anterior cruciate ligament. Linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche will miss four to six weeks with torn meniscus in his knee.
Nkemdiche had surgery Saturday after making five tackles against Vanderbilt. Freeze said Patrick Junen, Austin Golson, Jared Duke, and Justin Bell will replace Morris. Serdarius Bryant and Keith Lewis will take over for Nkemdiche.
“It’s a loss, especially from a leadership standpoint,” said Lewis, a junior from Tampa, Fla. “But we have faced adversity. I think it is my time now to step up and fill the void. (Denzel) is taking it well. It’s like when I had my surgery on my shoulder. You have to take it day-by-day.”
Southeast Missouri State plays in the Ohio Valley Conference. The Redhawks are playing a second straight FBS opponent. They opened the season with a 45-7 loss to Southeastern Louisiana University.
Last week, Ole Miss allowed 426 yards and a 50-percent conversion rate (8 of 16) on third down.
“The defense was awful,” Lewis said. “I think we underestimated how good the Vanderbilt offense was. This is a new game,and it’s an FCS opponent, but we are going in there with the right mind-set. We are going in there to get the shutout.”
For Freeze, any road victory is a good one. The time off has helped the Rebels relax and re-energize for their home debut.
“Our kids fought the entire 60 minutes. We made a lot of mistakes but we’ll get them corrected,” Freeze said. “It’s nice to be 1-0. I’ve been on the other side of those games, and I know the feeling (Vanderbilt) coach (James) Franklin and his staff and kids are having, and it’s not much fun. We’re blessed to have not played our best but still find a way to win.
“We’re looking forward to getting back to play at home, which is always special. We have to play with a little something extra and defend our home.”
Follow Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.