Vanderbilt can qualify for their second straight bowl game with a win Saturday, but an Ole Miss team with the same goal at stake will defend their home turf when the Commodores travel to Oxford.
This week's Vandy matchup will feature a battle of 5-4 teams, leaving the winner to become the SEC's eighth bowl eligible program. The 'Dores have won their last two outings at Ole Miss, riding a string of turnovers to pull off the upset in 2008 and calling in Robbie Caldwell's contract with some higher power to roll to a 28-14 victory in 2010. If they can make it three in a row, they'll be bowl eligible for the second straight season - something that's never happened in Vanderbilt history.
The Rebels are a much better team than they were the last time that Vandy saw them. New head coach Hugh Freeze has Ole Miss rebounding soundly from a dry spell that kept the team from playing in a bowl game in the past two years. A .500 of better season - coming off a 2-10 campaign - would make him a candidate for the SEC Coach of the Year award.
Can Ole Miss put Freeze's name in the mix with a win Saturday? To better understand Vandy's opponent, we turned to our friends over at the Mississippi blog Red Cup Rebellion - a site that enjoys hate-drinking through blowout losses nearly as much as we do. Here's what The Cup had to say about their team in 2012, and whether or not they can fend off the Commodores this weekend.
1. Ole Miss has had a bit of a revival in 2012. What's been the biggest factor behind their run to a 5-4 record this season?
The Cup: The biggest factor is obviously Hugh Freeze. A year ago, this program lacked direction, drive, and leadership. We weren't a team, but rather a collective of players just going through the motions and playing for nothing. It's pretty remarkable then that Freeze has been able to take a team that was 2-10 last season and inspire them to actually compete as aggressively as they can week-in and week-out. His players love him, it seems. He has also given this team and program an identity, with his hurry-up spread option attack being a valuable asset both on Saturdays and in recruiting.
Also, he brought Bo Wallace to Oxford, who has been a surprisingly capable quarterback; especially for a guy who is just a sophomore in his first year in the SEC.
2. What would a win over Vanderbilt mean for the Rebels on Saturday? Aside from securing bowl eligibility, would it be Ole Miss's biggest victory of the season so far? Do fans see this game as a growing rivalry like Commodore fans do?
TC: I think it would be huge for this program, and definitely the biggest win of Freeze's short career. If he can get over that hump of bowl eligibility in his first season, it would boost the team's confidence, re-invigorate frustrated fans, and help woo some recruits. As for the rivalry question, that's something that I asked our readers this week in our "Tuesday Question" to which the lot of them replied with a resounding "no." Most Ole Miss fans see Vanderbilt as being a team that is a constant thorn in our side, but not an actual rival. Most point out that Ole Miss and Vanderbilt fans are quite amicable to one another as evidence for this not being a rivalry which, when considering how our relationship with, say, Mississippi State has been, is a fair point to raise.
3. Bo Wallace has made some waves in his first season as a starter in Oxford. What should the Commodore defense expect to see from the sophomore behind center? He's shown a knack for extending drives with his legs - and Vanderbilt is a team that has trouble stopping quarterbacks who can find holes. Do you think Wallace can be an impact player against a Vandy D that has been very good all year?
TC: I really worry about Wallace against the Vanderbilt pass defense. He has gotten much better about this as the season has progressed, but he is still prone to forcing throws which aren't there, which can obviously lead to turnovers. With the Vandy DBs being as talented as they are, it should be a real test for him. He is a skilled enough runner, but teams have begun to key in on that and are playing him better than they were early in the season. I think early on he was able to surprise some defenses out of the read option, something which defensive coordinators in the second half of our season have been careful to avoid.
If he can extend some drives and get this team into the red zone, then I think we'll be fine. If he cannot, though, then the Rebs will lose. We go as Wallace goes, I guess.
4. The Ole Miss defense has given up 27 points or more six times in nine games this season. Does a Commodore offense that finally figured out how to finish drives last week worry you?
TC: Yes. This defense is great at making highlight plays. They force turnovers, they get pressure on the quarterback, and they lay some nasty hits at times. They're young and inexperienced, but incredibly athletic and aggressive for the most part. The problem with that youth and inexperience is that they are prone to giving up big plays. So they're the type of defense that can put you in a 3rd and 15 situation, only to give up a touchdown heave towards the endzone.
5. The Vandy offensive line is slowly getting better, but they're still one of this team's weakest links. Who on the Mississippi defense can put pressure on Jordan Rodgers and keep him from planting his feet and throwing downfield?
TC: End C.J. Johnson and nose tackle Issac Gross have been tremendous at disrupting offensive lines all season. If you're worried about guys getting to Rodgers, those would be them. Johnson in particular is excellent at gettting a good jump on the line of scrimmage, and was able to put some significant pressure on Aaron Murray and Tyler Wilson over the past couple of weeks. Linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche and safeties Cody Prewitt and Charles Sawyer have also proven themselves to be effective blitzers.
TC: No, he is not big enough, but he's too talented to not have on the field. He's a good runner, but he has recently proven himself valuable in the passing game, where he is a reliable option for Bo Wallace on 2nd and 3rd down situations. Georgia and Alabama were able to contain him fairly well, especially in option plays, whereas Arkansas, Texas, and Auburn weren't. It's tough to say what type of impact he will have against what I consider to be a really tough Vandy defense.
7. Vandy/Ole Miss got the primetime treatment, pitting two potential bowl teams for a 6 pm kickoff. That means plenty of tailgating time. How will that effect relations at the Grove, and will that mean a more lively crowd and bigger homefield advantage for the Rebels?
TC: At least from my experience, the late kickoff won't have any real effect on the atmosphere in the Grove. Sure, it'll be more crowded and a bit drunker, but people won't be any more mean-spirited towards Vanderbilt fans as a result. Ole Miss fans take the whole "Hospitality State" thing pretty seriously, except for when LSU or Mississippi State are in town. Vandy fans making the trip to Oxford should be able to enjoy themselves pretty easily, presuming they behave themselves. At our tailgate, for example, we like to give food and booze to visiting fans (no, we won't be there this weekend - sorry y'all) in exchange for, you know, actual conversations about actual football games. It's not a "HEY VANDERBILT U SUK LOL" type of vibe at all, at least on our end. It's more of a "hey we're happy to have you, please pick up your trash on the way out and be sure to compliment my buddy's wife over there because she cooked the shrimp and grits you're eating right now."
Visiting fans that are dicks though? We like throwing garbage at them. YOU WILL APPRECIATE OUR GROVE AND OUR HOSPITALITY, DAMMIT.
As for the game, a later kickoff can only help. I have to imagine that with bowl eligibility on the line and plenty of time for folks to make it to the Grove and the game, that the crowd should be lively enough. Ole Miss fans, though, are pretty fickle. Early Vanderbilt touchdowns, bad weather, or a dearth of contraband booze could mean a dwindling crowd beginning near halftime.
8. Finally, your prediction?
Ole Miss - 31
Vanderbilt - 24
I think it will be close or tied in the fourth. If that's the case, I like the Rebels chances at home presuming they don't turn the ball over.
That's great stuff from The Cup, and we're eternally grateful for his help with this week's preview. For more minute-by-minute updates on this weekend's rivalry game between the Rebels and the Commodores, be sure to check out Red Cup Rebellion.