Ole Miss’s Peach Bowl drubbing calls SEC dominance into question
ATLANTA — What’s that old expression about succeeding in freshman- and sophomore-level classes in college?
Thirty percent of your grade involves simply showing up.
Well, in that vain, the no-show Ole Miss Rebels shouldn’t be surprised by their failing marks from Wednesday, after humbly incurring 42-3 drubbing to No. 6 TCU in the Peach Bowl (Georgia Dome) — the first of six, ahem, premium New Year’s bowls over the next two days (Dec. 31-Jan. 1), comprising the inaugural College Football Playoff.
There’s reason to scoff at the "premium" buildup of these prestigious, high-revenue major bowls: On paper, this matchup had the dream scenario of pitting the No. 2 offense (TCU) against the nation’s top-ranked defense (Ole Miss).
But it was a completely one-sided affair, so much that the Horned Frogs — not the Rebels — bore the look of a defense that had surrendered only 163 points during the regular season.
It was also TCU that registered five sacks and a pick-six in the end zone (the rarest of birds in big-time college football) … creating the perception that Ole Miss QB Bo Wallace had been sacked into the double digits.
As such, it was a highly non-competitive clash of two underrated programs that crave national respect. But from this one-day eye test, only one school warranted the attention.
"Obviously, a very disappointing day for our team," said Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze in the postgame, who acknowledged a "sickening" feeling of not preparing his club well enough for the TCU onslaught. "We didn’t perform well today — TCU did — and I take full responsibility for that."
The Ole Miss defense got behind the proverbial 8-ball from the opening kickoff. Just 60 seconds into the action, TCU receiver Kolby Listenbee (three catches, 45 yards, one TD) fielded a "bubble" lateral, set his feet and then lofted a picturesque rainbow TD pass to tailback Aaron Green in the end zone.
Roughly seven minutes later, Green hit end-zone paydirt once more, capping a thorough 78-yard drive with a 15-yard touchdown run. Before the majority of red-clad Rebel fans could even find their red seats at the dome … their school had fallen into a 14-0 hole.
Things got worse from there, with QB Trevone Boykin (253 total yards, three TDs) orchestrating three scoring drives in the first half, raising the Horned Frogs’ lead to 21-0. That paved the way for the defense’s back- breaking occurrence right before halftime — in the form of the shortest defensive touchdown in NCAA history.
The aforementioned pick-six in the end zone, courtesy of James McFarland. (Paging David Pollack from the early 2000s.)
How feckless were the No. 9 Rebels? Midway through the third quarter, the offense had tripled its net rushing output on a single play — going from 1 to 3 yards. (Ole Miss would finish with a net of nine ground yards.)
Then there’s this (hat tip to FOX Sports South’s Cory McCartney): Of Bo Wallace’s two games at the Georgia Dome this season (Boise State on Aug. 29; TCU on Wednesday), the senior ingloriously finished one interception shy of matching Atlanta Falcons QB Matt Ryan’s INT tally at home for all of 2014 (seven).
Put it all together … and it’s fair to wonder if even the Oklahoma coaches and players — just days after their humiliating 40-6 defeat to Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl — found Ole Miss to be overwhelmed on this day, when watching from afar.
"(TCU has) a good defense," said Wallace in the postgame, before repeating Freeze’s analysis of how the Rebels lost too many 1-on-1 battles with the Horned Frogs’ defensive linemen (read: not much blitzing on TCU’s part).
"I didn’t want (our) seniors to go out this way," said Wallace, whose Rebels produced only 20 points in their final three games (two defeats).
"This program has given me a lot," added the quarterback, before lamenting how a Peach Bowl win might have prompted national pundits into assigning a high preseason ranking to Ole Miss come August — even though he’s moving on to life after football.
In Wallace’s stead, freshman DeVante Kincade completed one of three passes for 11 yards. It would serve as only his third and fourth incompletions for the year — albeit in mop-up duty.
With Kincade’s mention, Bleacher Report writer Barrett Sallee then asked Coach Freeze about the possibility of bringing in a veteran transfer QB for next year — without ever mentioning the much-bandied-about names of Braxton Miller (Ohio State), Jeff Driskel (Florida), etc.
Freeze coyly responded with the stock answer of, "You’re going to consider anyone you feel (that) helps your football team move another step forward."
That was apparently TCU’s motivation for Wednesday’s walloping. This year’s CFP semifinals (Alabama vs. Ohio State; Oregon vs. Florida State) won’t include any Big 12 school — despite the highly audible chants of We Want Bama! We Want Bama! from the Frogs faithful.
But there’s nothing wrong with getting an early jump on politicking for the No. 1 spot in August 2015.
"They would certainly get my consideration" for No. 1, said Freeze, knowing that his own conference — the SEC — produced seven straight BCS national champions from 2006-12.
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Signing Day of 2013 shall remain a red-letter day in Rebels history, with the school landing three transcendent blue-chippers in the same class — linebacker Robert Nkemdiche (the consensus No. 1 recruit), offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil and wide receiver Laquon Treadwell.
But here’s the cold reality of that coup: Barring another round of serious injuries, Nkemdiche, Treadwell (broken fibula in October) and Tunsil (broken fibula on Wednesday) could be surefire first-rounders for the 2016 NFL Draft, perhaps as leaders of their respective positions.
That means Ole Miss, despite all the program advancements under Freeze (boffo recruiting, facility upgrades, prime-time TV kickoffs, College Gameday visits), could be staring at a narrowing, one-year window for reaching the College Football Playoff … and perhaps the CFP title game.
Which brings us to this: Have you seen the Rebels’ 2015 schedule? The road slate is equal parts daunting and unkind, with high-profile trips to Alabama (Sept. 19), Florida (Oct. 3), underrated Memphis (Oct. 17), Auburn (Oct. 31) and Mississippi State (Nov. 28) peppered throughout the docket.
And at home, the Rebels must contend with three meat-grinder outings against Texas A&M, Arkansas and LSU — all in a four-week span (October/November).
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That’s not to say Ole Miss shall forever feel the sting of losing Wallace to graduation.
Yes, Wallace (9,425 yards passing entering the Peach Bowl) ranks among the school’s most prolific passers (along with Eli and Archie Manning), but there are two major smudges on his 2014 resume:
1) The inexplicable interception against LSU on Oct. 25 — just days before the first College Football Playoff rankings were released — when the Rebels were in reasonable shape to tie the game (field-goal range).
2) His three-game finish against Arkansas, Mississippi State and TCU, accounting for zero passing TDs (one rushing score) and six interceptions. Against the Horned Frogs, Wallace meekly finished with 109 yards passing and three INTs.
"The first half was a straight punch in the mouth," said Ole Miss receiver Evan Engram (one catch, 11 yards). "This offseason, we are going to prepare for a national championship. That is our goal for next year. We will swallow this (loss) … we’ll use this as motivation for next year."
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There’s a good news/bad news consequence to unspeakably bad bowl defeats:
On the plus side, Ole Miss will always remember the feeling of knocking off No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Mississippi State in the same season. After all, no bowl blowout can eradicate those rivalry-based triumphs
Plus, there’s a cluster of fans (and coaches) who view bowl games as popular throwaway events, instead focusing on the 12-15 additional practices in December — as a means of breaking in youngsters for next season.
On the down side, every bowl defeat — no matter how large or small — reflects directly on that particular conference. In the SEC’s case, it’s only the second loss of the postseason (LSU fell to Notre Dame on Tuesday), but it’s the first setback to awaken those who preach the merits of transitive properties.
As in, If TCU routed Ole Miss by 39, and the Rebels toppled Alabama … then how on earth does the Big 12 get shut out of the first-ever College Football Playoff?
And frankly, those people would have a point. In the penultimate release of the CFP rankings — before the Dec. 6 slate of games (regular season/conference championships) — TCU had achieved a No. 3 overall ranking.
And then four days later, the Horned Frogs dismantled Iowa State by 52 points … leading some to believe the program had done more than enough to clinch a spot in the CFP semifinals.
In earnest, TCU had enjoyed a near-flawless campaign during the regular season, posting eight victories of 20-plus points, boasting top-10 tallies with scoring offense/scoring defense and collecting quality wins over Minnesota, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Kansas State (prior to Wednesday’s indomitable rout).
The only resume flaws involved a shaky win over hapless Kansas on Nov. 15 … and one five-minute meltdown against Baylor on Oct. 11.
The same Baylor squad (Big 12 co-champs — with the "tiebreaker" edge) that rummaged throughout the competition to finish at 11-1 … but fall short of the CFP semifinals by one measly slot. (The Bears take on Michigan State in Thursday’s Cotton Bowl.)
For those who’ve been living under a rock for the last four months, TCU had a 21-point lead over home-standing Baylor early in the fourth quarter … but floundered down the stretch, giving up 24 consecutive points and falling 61-58.
If it weren’t for one random, painful stretch of a single quarter, TCU would be playing either Alabama, Oregon or Florida State on Thursday night.
Spinning back to the SEC, Wednesday’s thumping — in southern territory, no less — has an odd feel to it. In fact, even when exercising the powers of Google, it’s hard to find many conference-related blowouts that match or surpass the Ole Miss shakedown.
Florida’s 62-24 loss to No. 1 Nebraska (national champions) in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl immediately comes to mind, along with Alabama’s baffling defeats to Utah (2009) and Oklahoma (2014) in the Sugar Bowl.
But these notable setbacks are crucial exceptions … which ultimately prove the rule.
You see, in most cases, history has been extremely kind to SEC in bowl action. It’s a just reward for showing up and meeting the challenge ahead.