New Mexico St.-Mississippi Preview

OXFORD, Miss. (AP) – Mississippi’s march to national relevance slammed into a blue and orange brick wall of reality.

So the 14th-ranked Rebels (4-1) are trying to correct some flaws made readily apparent Saturday during a lopsided 38-10 road loss to Florida.

”We’re not elite right now,” coach Hugh Freeze said.

It’s a quick fall for a team that looked like one of the nation’s best just two weeks ago, when the Rebels traveled to Tuscaloosa and stunned Alabama 43-37. That victory pushed Ole Miss to No. 3 in the national rankings, but Saturday’s debacle against the Gators provided plenty of evidence that the lofty placement was premature.

Among the things that went wrong for Ole Miss in the Swamp: Four turnovers, an anemic running game, an offensive line that got pushed around and a secondary that routinely missed tackles and blew assignments.

That’s a long list to fix.

The Rebels do get a respite from SEC play this Saturday when they host New Mexico State (0-4). The game doesn’t figure to be close – the Rebels were 42-point favorites Monday – but it gives Freeze and the Ole Miss players another opportunity to work on issues.

”All over the board we didn’t play well, from top to bottom,” quarterback Chad Kelly said. ”It starts with us. We’re the ones executing and we have to do a way better job of executing otherwise games like this will happen.

”I’ll assure you one thing – our team isn’t going to give up.”

Ole Miss is still trying to figure out a way to make up for the fact it doesn’t have two of its best players. Starting left tackle Laremy Tunsil has missed the entire season because of an ongoing NCAA investigation. Freeze said he hopes Tunsil’s case is resolved soon and he can return to the field, but no timetable has been given.

Starting safety Tony Conner is out with a torn medial collateral ligament in his right knee and is expected to miss at least a few more weeks.

Without those two, Ole Miss has been forced to reshuffle its offensive line and secondary. It didn’t seem to have much of an effect until the Florida game, when both units performed poorly.

Freeze said injuries are not an excuse.

”You know what, every team has some of that,” Freeze said. ”You’ve got to continue to build the depth of your program so you can still be elite when those (injuries) happen.”

Freeze said the Ole Miss secondary will mix its personnel to try and fix Saturday’s woes. Senior Mike Hilton will move to Conner’s old position, which is basically a linebacker/safety hybrid.

Senior Trae Elston will move to Hilton’s old position as strong safety and sophomore C.J. Hampton will enter the starting lineup as the free safety.

Though the loss to Florida was ugly, the Rebels still control their fate in the Western Division. Ole Miss has never advanced to the SEC championship game since the league split into two divisions in 1992.

”I believe this team will respond – no question,” Freeze said. ”We still have the ability to be one of the best teams in the country.”

Mississippi linebacker C.J. Johnson had surgery Tuesday to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee and is expected to miss four to six weeks. Johnson has started four games this season, making 17 tackles and grabbing two interceptions.

The Aggies are coming off a 38-29 loss at New Mexico last week, blowing a 15-point lead in the final 22 minutes. Larry Rose III ran for 260 yards and three touchdowns on 21 carries, giving him 456 yards in the past two games, but New Mexico State is allowing 45.8 points per game – third-to-last in the FBS.

The Rebels and Aggies have never met.