After recording one of the biggest victories in school history, the No. 3 Ole Miss football team is ready to move ahead. However, the Rebels know focus will be the most important aspect of practice this week.
Ole Miss surged in the national rankings after defeating then-No. 2 Alabama 43-37 in Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday night in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. It was Ole Miss’ first win at Alabama since 1988. Coupled with last season’s 23-17 victory in Oxford, Ole Miss is enjoying victories against Alabama in back-to-back seasons for the first time in program history.
Ole Miss (3-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) will try to build on that momentum at 6 p.m. Saturday (ESPNU) when it plays host to Vanderbilt (1-2, 0-1) in a SEC game at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
“I’m very happy about the win,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said. “It’s good to see that our people were having some good things to rejoice about with our program. That is something that was very important to me when I came here. It’s really good to see our kids. We had to fight to get out of there with a win.
“A lot of credit goes to Alabama. I guess on three different occasions I let my mind go really where it shouldn’t go at where maybe the game was already over.”
Ole Miss forced a fumble on the opening kickoff and capitalized on the short field to kick a field goal. Thanks to that start, the Rebels never trailed. Ole Miss led by as many as 20 points late in the third quarter.
Freeze said the Rebels gained a large amount of confidence by beating the Crimson Tide last season. The team was going to have to match that level of performance to win for a second-straight year. The attention to detail began in practice.
“I was very pleased with our approach this past week, from our staff and players,” Freeze said. “One of the things I started last Sunday was harping that I want our coaches and players to enjoy the moments we have together. I was just determined all week long that we were going to enjoy the journey and the process, and we really wanted to make it about the people and the journey instead of the results.
“I really like the approach we took with that, and the theme of being who we are, and that is good enough, no matter what the results say.”
In his third career start, former East Mississippi Community College standout Chad Kelly was 18 of 33 for 341 yards and three touchdowns. The Rebels had 433 yards of offense.
“To have zero turnovers in that environment and seven explosive plays, that is really good,” Freeze said. “I thought the team with the least amount of turnovers and the most amount of explosive plays would win the game. That proved to be pretty accurate. Those were some good things. We take pride when a break comes our way and we score.
“I was really pleased with the confidence I felt from the offensive guys on the sidelines. Momentum would shift back and forward as it does when two good teams were playing. I really like they had confidence that they could go back out and score.”
While Ole Miss has scored 43 or more points in all three games this season, the biggest statistic Saturday was Ole Miss forced five turnovers.
“I think we present a lot of different looks for the quarterback, which might be bad in some instances because we were in bad position sometimes,” Freeze said. “But it does create some turnovers. Our guys did a good job of disguising our looks. It’s a lot of different looks for the quarterback to process, and sometimes it causes him to throw into coverage. We have had a knack of getting a lot of turnovers the last few years.”
Vanderbilt is coming off a 47-7 win against Austin Peay. Including this season’s loss to Georgia, the Commodores have lost nine-straight conference games.
“The Vanderbilt offense is a bit different this year,” Freeze said. “They have a new coordinator (Andy Ludwig), so you’re seeing a flavor of that. They are using a lot of personnel. There are some similarities but some differences. The passing game has a lot of new unique twists.”
Last season, Ole Miss had a brief appearance in the top five of The Associated Press poll. Freeze hopes the team learned from that experience and that this season’s team will have more staying power.
“I think (this season’s success) depends on the leadership of our team,” Freeze said. “If our team wants to be a serious team that contends throughout the course of the year, they need to control their preparation. They can’t control injuries, but they can control how the ones we have ready to play prepare. If we really want to be one of the teams that is being talked about and put on a national scene, our kids are going to have to understand that and we will preach it to them.
“We celebrate our victories. We had fun. Those were great memories. Just like life, you are on to the next struggle, and that struggle is to prepare to play Vanderbilt Saturday.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.