You could call this one the Battle of the Rising Stars. When Ole Miss travels to Nashville to play Vanderbilt on Thursday, Aug. 29 — the official kickoff of the SEC football schedule — the two men grabbing the most attention will be the ones who won’t play a down.
The team’s leaders — Hugh Freeze in his second season in Oxford and James Franklin in his third at Vanderbilt — have generated more enthusiasm and excitement on their respective campuses than anyone would have dreamed possible just a few short years ago.
Now, a game that would have easily been branded the Who Cares Bowl in 2010 is a nationally-televised, must-see event.
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How times have changed.
Just three football seasons ago, the Vanderbilt Commodores were commonly known as the ‘Dore mats of the SEC, a witty nickname that they had earned. Vandy went 2-10 (1-7 SEC) in 2010. Its average margin of defeat was 23.1 points.
But as bad as the ‘Dores were, their lone SEC victory that year came against Ole Miss, a team that was on the downside of awful. The Rebels also finished 1-7 in the conference in 2010 and 4-8 overall, although that season proved to be rosy compared to 2011 when Ole Miss went 2-10 overall and 0-8 in the SEC.
Franklin arrived in Nashville after the final play of 2010.
Freeze gave a tearful acceptance speech on his first day in Oxford in December 2011.
Since then Vandy is 15-11 and has made two consecutive bowl appearances for the first time in school history, while Ole Miss went 7-6 last year with an Egg Bowl victory over in-state rival Mississippi State and a walloping of Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl.
Last season’s matchup between the two up-and-comers was a barnburner with since-graduated QB Jordan Rodgers hitting receiver Chris Boyd for a touchdown pass with 52 seconds left to give the Commodores a 27-26 lead. At that time, the game was to determine which of the two perennial cellar-dwellers would be bowl eligible (although both ended up going to and winning bowl games).
Now, the game is a Thursday night special and a potential launching pad for a run at a divisional title — at least that is what the players, coaches and optimistic fans believe.
The teams couldn’t be more closely matched, either. The Rebels had one of the best recruiting hauls in school history and they return a dangerous tandem in quarterback Bo Wallace and wide receiver Donte Moncrief.
Meanwhile Vanderbilt has a new quarterback, Wyoming transfer Austyn Carta-Samuels, who saw limited action last year in Nashville behind Rodgers, and two of the best receivers in the conference in Boyd and Jordan Matthews.
Defensively, both teams are solid, although Ole Miss could have the edge with some of their true freshmen, including Robert Nkemdiche, last year’s top high school prospect in the nation. Returning linebackers Denzel Nkemdiche (Robert’s older brother), Mike Marry and C.J. Johnson could also tilt the defensive advantage in the Rebels’ favor.
But the Commodores are playing at home, where they are 9-4 under Franklin.
Certainly both coaches are ready. At SEC Media Days the only game Franklin and Freeze would talk about was the first one. Each man knows the importance of walking away with a 1-0 record, both overall and in the conference.
It would be hard to imagine as better game than the one between these two teams a year ago, and unless it goes to overtime, it would be impossible for it to be any closer. One thing is certain: no teams will be more prepared and no fans will be more fired up. No matter which coach, which team, or which fan base walks away with the victory, this one could be the best SEC season opener in many years