Mississippi and Oklahoma State get to renew their recent postseason rivalry in the Sugar Bowl, though the Rebels will do so without one of their top defensive players.
Robert Nkemdiche has played his final college game and is headed to the NFL after an incident at an Atlanta hotel as the Rebels and Cowboys meet in the postseason for the third time since 2004 on Jan. 1.
Coach Hugh Freeze said in a statement that Nkemdiche was told he "will not be joining us" for the bowl game after the lineman was charged with marijuana possession following a 15-foot fall at the hotel Dec. 12. The school said he will enter the NFL draft as a junior.
Freeze said the school will "support him as he prepares for the next chapter in his life."
Nkemdiche is a second-team All-American and possible top-10 draft pick. He has 29 tackles, seven for losses, including three sacks. He also scored three touchdowns for Ole Miss, which used him at fullback at times.
"While I wish I could have finished this journey with my team, I am grateful for the opportunity to have been a part of this program, and I am ready to begin the next phase of my life," Nkemdiche said in a statement.
"I have learned a valuable lesson in the last week, and I look forward to showing NFL personnel that this is not representative of my true character."
Shutting down the No. 13 Cowboys (10-2) will likely prove more difficult for Ole Miss without Nkemdiche, as Oklahoma State averaged 489.5 yards – 17th in the FBS.
The 16th-ranked Rebels can take heart in the fact they’ve had Oklahoma State’s number in the two recent postseason matchups, both at the Cotton Bowl. Ole Miss (9-3) won 31-28 on Jan. 2, 2004, and 21-7 on Jan. 2, 2010.
Now they’ll play in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Ole Miss returns to a New Year’s Six bowl for the second straight season and would like to play better than last year. The Rebels were embarrassed in a 42-3 loss to TCU in the Peach Bowl.
Freeze said he wouldn’t remind players much about the TCU loss. Instead, he hopes the lessons learned from that game will help the program moving forward.
"I’m proud of our program for being one of the few to make it back to a ‘New Year’s Six’ bowl," Freeze said. "My childhood was spent hearing Rebel fans talk about Archie (Manning) leading us to a Sugar Bowl win, and I’m thrilled for our players, coaches and fans to return to New Orleans and represent the Southeastern Conference."
Oklahoma State will try to bounce back after more recent setbacks. The Cowboys won their first 10 games before back-to-back losses to Baylor and Oklahoma – the latter a 58-23 rout at home.
Oklahoma State likely jumped Baylor for a spot in the Sugar Bowl when the Bears lost to Texas on Dec. 5.
Coach Mike Gundy said he was at an 11-year-old basketball tournament in rural Oklahoma when the Baylor-Texas game was happening and didn’t have cellphone service. He didn’t realize the Longhorns had pulled off the upset until he left, drove down the road a few miles and his phone lit up with messages.
"What a great opportunity for our young men who have worked so hard over the last 11 months," Gundy said. "Congrats to Ole Miss and their team. We’re looking forward to a great game in a historic bowl."
Ole Miss hasn’t been to the Sugar Bowl since 1970 when Manning was the quarterback, while Oklahoma State will be making its first appearance in the Big Easy since 1946.
"It’s kind of a bucket list thing if you’re the coach of Ole Miss to participate in this bowl," Freeze said.
All signs point to a shootout. Oklahoma State ranks ninth in the country with 41.2 points per game while Ole Miss is 14th with 40.3. Both teams love to throw the ball and have star receivers – the Rebels’ Laquon Treadwell and the Cowboys’ James Washington. Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly led the SEC with 3,740 yards passing.
Defensively, Ole Miss will have to rely more heavily on end Marquis Haynes with Nkemdiche out. Haynes leads the team with 14 tackles for loss, including 9 1/2 sacks.
Oklahoma State counters with Emmanuel Ogbah, whose 13 sacks rank fourth in the country.
"(The Rebels) have a physical front. They are able to run the ball, and their quarterback is very talented," Cowboys linebacker Seth Jacobs said. "He can run, he can throw and he makes a lot of people miss. We have to stay sound in tackling and making sure we’re in the right spot at the right time."
The Cowboys’ chances of winning will likely be better if starting quarterback Mason Rudolph can return from a foot injury. Rudolph missed most of the season finale against the Sooners because of the injury, forcing backup J.W. Walsh into action.
The QB situation remains murky.
"We’ve leaned more on J.W. because we have to facilitate our team at this time," Gundy said. "If Rudolph’s healthy, then we’ll have to make a decision in the middle of bowl practice on how to distribute reps. It’s a difficult question to answer, but I would say that with the increased role and number of practice reps that J.W. has gotten, we would expect him to play at least half the game either way, depending on Mason’s health."