Three years ago, Ole Miss slogged through the 2011 season and finished 2-10, the worst season in Rebels history. Since then, Houston Nutt was forced out, Hugh Freeze returned to Oxford, recruiting picked up dramatically and now the Rebels — along with their neighbors from Starkville — are the talk of the college football world.
Saturday night, they went to hostile territory to play in front of 110,000 fans in a game where many experts assumed they’d come out flat after their huge win over Alabama and get knocked off by Texas A&M. Instead, Ole Miss jumped out to a 21-0 lead on the No. 14 Aggies and cruised to 35-20 win.
We talked about Mississippi State’s rise the past couple of weeks in the Big Picture, but what Ole Miss is doing is every bit as impressive. The Rebels got A&M’s attention in a hurry Saturday night, stuffing the normally fast-starting Aggies with just 60 yards on their first four drives.
In a conference known for its fast linebackers and ferocious D-linemen, the Rebels have the nastiest defense in the league. They allow only 4.33 yards per play — best in the SEC.
The Aggies, hampered by dropped passes the previous week at Miss. State, were committed to establishing their running game against the Rebels, but the Ole Miss D-line would have none of that. The Rebels held A&M to just 54 yards on 35 carries, but the even more eye-opening stat is the fact that A&M’s gifted trio of backs — Brandon Williams, Tra Carson and Trey Williams — combined for 26 carries with the longest one going for just 6 yards.
The headliner of the Ole Miss D is sophomore Robert Nkemdiche, the No. 1 overall prospect in the 2013 recruiting class. A hulking 6-foot-4, 282-pounder, Nkemdiche is often shifted to line up at defensive tackle and end. Wherever Nkemdiche is aligned, he is a major problem for the opposing team’s offense. Individual stats with him are misleading to show his true worth to the Rebels’ defense. Against A&M, he was credited with only two tackles and no QB hurries. What the stat sheet misses was the biggest play in the game, where Nkemdiche lined up across from A&M left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi, beat the Aggies star — a projected first-round pick — and pressured Kenny Hill, who floated a pass right to Ole Miss DB Cody Prewitt. He returned it 75 yards for a TD, giving the Rebels a 21-0 lead.
On the season, Nkemdiche has just one sack and only one TFL.
"He’s getting so much better at understanding blocking schemes," said Kiffin, who has been around more than his share of dominant D-linemen. As a kid, he was a Bucs ballboy when his dad, Monte, was the defensive coordinator and had Warren Sapp as his star player. The younger Kiffin was an Ole Miss staffer under Ed Orgeron when they had SEC star DE Greg Hardy, and then Kiffin was on the Nebraska staff when they had All-American Ndamukong Suh.
Plays like that one, or like beating an elite player such as Ogbuehi, are what makes Nkemdiche so special. Kiffin, though, raves about Nkemdiche’s desire to be great. "He’s so coachable. He comes in on his own to study tape of Warren Sapp." His conditioning also, especially for a D-tackle, is "off the charts" as the Rebels’ strength staff can attest from the GPS monitoring they do with him. "They say they’ve never seen anything like it because he brings so much force and energy,” Kiffin said.
It’s hardly a sure thing to see former blue-chip recruits thriving in college after being so hyped in high school. But it’s not just Nkemdiche from the Rebels’ celebrated 2013 signing class that has lived up to and, in fact, exceeded their hype say Ole Miss coaches. Top-ranked safety Tony Conner is the team’s leading tackler. No. 1 ranked receiver Laquon Treadwell is the Rebels’ leading receiver with 30 catches and four TDs and No. 1 ranked O-lineman Laremy Tunsil is the anchor of stout offensive front. "They’ve all been incredibly hard workers and leaders," said Freeze.
As talented as Nkemdiche is, he’s far from the only rising star on the defense now that Ole Miss has emerged in the spotlight. Prewitt, a hard-hitting, 215-pound safety, is a ballhawk; speedy, 232-pound edge rusher C.J. Johnson is a savvy, relentless spirit who sets the tempo for the front, while corner Senquez Golson (five INTs) has blossomed into a play-making corner.
Next up for the Rebels is a visit from an even younger Tennessee team before Ole Miss has to play at LSU. In November, there’s a meeting with Auburn and then a trip to Arkansas before the game everyone around college football now has circled: Nov. 29 against arch-rival Mississippi State in Oxford.
WELCOME BACK, OREGON
Those who’d written off Oregon — and the Pac-12 — after last weekend probably should think again. The Ducks jumped all over a talented UCLA team on the road, taking a 42-10 lead in the fourth quarter as they averaged 6.3 yards per carry. A big key was the return of standout left tackle Jake Fisher from injury to provide a big boost to the O-line. In the first three games of the season with Fisher, Oregon allowed only four sacks. In the two without him, they surrendered 12 sacks. Against UCLA, with the Bruins’ athletic front seven, the Ducks front didn’t allow a single sack.
"We didn’t change anything (scheme-wise)," Ducks OC Scott Frost told FOX Sports on Sunday. "More than anything, our mindset changed. A lot of credit goes to Jake, but everybody across the front played better and our running backs ran harder. I think those guys took it as a big-time challenge. If we come off the ball like we did (Saturday) and our backs run like they did, we’re going to have a good chance in every game. When we get the run game going, it opens everything up and we’re hard to stop."
That’s also good news for Marcus Mariota’s Heisman hopes. Mariota threw two more TDs and ran for another two touchdowns, adding 75 rushing yards. The 6-4, 220-pound QB now has a 17-0 TD-INT ratio and a spectacular 80-10 career mark.
"Marcus impresses me every week," said Frost. "He’s the best college player I’ve ever been around. Whatever it takes to win, he’s going to do it. He impresses me so much with how fast he processes everything and gets the ball to the right place. We can scheme all we want, but if you don’t have a guy who can see it and get it there fast, it doesn’t matter what you’re in. We can do a lot of things because he can see a lot of things before they happen, so the ball ends up in the right place."
The 39-year-old Frost — who played in the NFL with the Jets, Browns, Packers and Bucs — was a teammate of the great Brett Favre in Green Bay. Many in NFL circles say Favre may have had the strongest arm the league’s seen.
"Brett had such a big-time arm," said Frost. "Maybe other than Brett, (Mariota) throws as well as anybody I’ve ever been around."
HOW GEORGIA RESPONDED WITHOUT GURLEY
With the best player in the best conference sidelined pending an investigation, Georgia traveled to Mizzou and produced one of the weekend’s most impressive performances, shutting out the Tigers 34-0. Hutson Mason was extremely sharp, connecting on 22 of 28 passes as the Dawgs proved there’s life without Todd Gurley. Even more impressive was the fact that it came against the team with the SEC’s best pass rush. The Dawgs’ D was exceptional, picking off Maty Mauk four times and limiting Mizzou to 0 for 7 on third downs while UGA was 12 of 21 on third downs.
Dawgs OC Mike Bobo deserves plenty of praise for not only the Georgia game plan sans Gurley, but also their approach. Bobo told FOX Sports on Sunday he implored his offense to remain patient, relying on a lot of quick-game to neutralize the Tigers’ outstanding pass rush and try to stay out of third-and-long situations. He also was determined, even without Gurley, to pound away on the ground for four quarters, and that proved shrewd as 2- and 3-yard runs in the first half became 8- and 10-yard runs later in the game.
A big key for the Dawgs, now 5-1, will be if Mason can continue to build off his sharp showing at Mizzou. Bobo, himself a former Bulldogs QB, talked to Mason Saturday morning about being that guy who wants to take the last shot or has to sink the big putt. After all, Mason wouldn’t have "his security blanket (Gurley), and he hadn’t played with a lot of confidence, and for whatever reason there was some hesitation." It all must’ve resonated with Mason.
"We’d talked about trusting what you see, and he was very decisive in his decisions and looked more at ease," Bobo said, adding that his protege excels at throwing corner routes — something that was a good option against the Tigers’ D. "The ball was coming out good out of hands."
The Dawgs’ rebuilt O-line, which had to replace two starters coming into the season, again was superb. The Georgia front paved the way for 210 yards rushing and yielded only two sacks (UGA has allowed eight sacks in six games). Better still, ailing wideouts Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley returned to action. Neither was a huge factor, but both were able to regain some confidence and get back into football shape. Their return figures to provide Georgia with a vertical threat that had been lacking in its attack.
Bobo didn’t want to comment on if or when Gurley might be back in the lineup. "It’s out of my hands," he said, adding that the feeling is a little like when dealing with an injured player — if he’s cleared, he can be a factor in the game plan. If not, it’s next man up.
CHOW’S MUCH-NEEDED MOMENT
Props to Hawaii coach Norm Chow, whose team kicked off its Mountain West season with a come-from-behind win over 3-2 Wyoming. Word is the normally low-key Chow was uncharacteristically charged up at halftime, more so than some of his assistants had ever seen him, and his players really responded. UH, which had three single-digit losses to Pac-12 teams earlier in the year, went down 14-0 in the first two minutes of the game before outscoring the Cowboys 28-7 in the second half to win 38-28.
It has been an emotional time for Chow, who spent a couple of days earlier in the week in Los Angeles with his wife, Diana. She had undergone a medical procedure at UCLA after suffering a brain aneurysm. We hear she is doing better, and Chow was planning on flying back to LA before returning to Hawaii early in the week.
FLORIDA GUYS SAVE USC
Recruiting Florida has proven to be a very, very good thing for USC over the years, and Steve Sarkisian probably would cringe to think where his team would be without his Sunshine State players. In Buck Allen and Nelson Agholor, the Trojans tandem accounted for 314 of the team’s 424 yards against Arizona. Meanwhile, Florida-bred D-linemen Leonard Williams and Claude Pelon combined for three sacks and a blocked kick.
Heck of a point made by former NFL QB Trent Dilfer, the head of the Elite 11, about the resiliency of Baylor QB Bryce Petty after he threw a pick-six early in the fourth quarter against TCU. Petty proceeded to connect on his next six passes in a row for 113 yards and two TDs to spark the comeback.
1. Mississippi State: Even if LSU and A&M don’t seem as formidable as they did a few weeks ago, winning at Tiger Stadium on a Saturday night is still nothing to dismiss, but Saturday’s win over No. 2 Auburn was State’s most impressive win yet. There have been no letdowns and no team has proven more so far.
2. Ole Miss: Beating Alabama was huge. Showing they could handle success and go on the road and play in front of 110,000 fans and dominate made a statement, too. The Rebels’ D is no joke and Bo Wallace is shutting up a lot of skeptics.
3. FSU: The bar for the Noles has been high, and they’ve beaten solid competition but haven’t look dominant. They get their biggest test of the season so far when Notre Dame visits this weekend.
4. Baylor: Putting up almost 800 yards of O on a Gary Patterson defense while rallying from down 21 points in the fourth quarter is no simple task, but the Bears’ schedule leading up to this was the weakest of the bunch and they did surrender 58 points last weekend.
5. Notre Dame: The Stanford win is the best thing on their resume. Everett Golson has cooled of late, though, with nine turnovers in the past three games, a bad sign heading into the huge FSU game.
I heard that I was alone in keeping Zona in my Top 10. My reasoning was the Cats still have one of the best wins of the season, beating Oregon at Autzen and their lone loss came down to the last second.
STAT OF THE WEEK, TAKE I
It is still mind-blowing to actually see Miss. State and Ole Miss among the nation’s top three teams. In 2011, they were a combined 2-14 in SEC play.
STAT OF THE WEEK, TAKE II
Miss. State has faced three top-10 SEC opponents this season and outscored them 49-7 in the first quarter.
STAT OF THE WEEK, TAKE III
There are six undefeated teams remaining at the FBS level: FSU, Baylor, Notre Dame, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Marshall. In 2007, four of those programs – Baylor, ND, Marshall, Ole Miss — won only three games each. FSU is credited with zero wins after having wins vacated and MSU was the only one with a winning record, going 8-5.
STAT OF THE WEEK, TAKE IV
In the fourth quarter against ASU last week and ‘Zona this week, USC allowed a combined 464 yards.
STAT OF THE WEEK, TAKE V
Despite having a largely rebuilt secondary, Georgia is the only team in the country yet to allow a play of 40 yards or longer. Props to new DC Jeremy Pruitt on that. Last year, the Dawgs ranked 66th in allowing such plays, giving up 13 of ‘em on the season.
Bruce Feldman is a senior college football reporter and columnist for FOXSports.com and FOX Sports 1. Follow him on Twitter @BruceFeldmanCFB.