Eric Church may know nothing about college football, but the country musician got one thing absolutely right this past week.
There may not be a better two-loss team out there than No. 16 Ole Miss — Florida State, Oklahoma and LSU all included. The Rebels showed as much in their get-it-done 48-28 win on Saturday against Memphis, a team that’s being overlooked with the departures of coach Justin Fuente and quarterback Paxton Lynch.
The bottom line: Ole Miss got it done and, most importantly, held onto its comfy first-half lead for the second straight week. When the Tigers cut their deficit to six points, Hugh Freeze’s squad responded confidently with two no-sweat touchdown drives that lasted less than two minutes each. Chad Kelly kept the turnover bug at bay as he hit Evan Engram on a 12-yard scoring strike and Damore’ea Stringfellow on a 29-yard pass that set up the next TD, stunting his opponent’s momentum just as it was building.
Refreshingly, the Rebels were able to rely on more than just Kelly and his targets, as well. Akeem Judd, Eugene Brazley and even backup quarterback Jason Pellerin all cut through the Memphis defense at various points in this game as Ole Miss outrushed its foes, 263-119. Brazley nearly averaged 10 yards per carry; Pellerin (6-foot-4, 230 pounds) could be a sneaky-good red zone threat down the stretch.
The Rebels defensive line, led by D.J. Jones and Marquis Haynes, kept Tigers QB Riley Ferguson off balance and continued to show improvement in containing the run.
Clearly, the hiccups that hurt Ole Miss in the Florida State and Alabama collapses are becoming less of an issue. But does this team have enough in it to run the table post-bye week?
All of its remaining opponents are beatable — at LSU and at Texas A&M will be tough — and strength of schedule certainly plays in the Rebels’ favor. But the games that most affect Freeze’s fifth Oxford team happened outside the SEC.
Baylor squeaked by a one-win Iowa State team. West Virginia did the same against two-win Kansas State. Washington, which has remaining games at Oregon, Utah and California, blew out Stanford at home. The Utes lost to Cal, and Arizona State trails USC big at the time of this writing.
Meaning? There is an increasing likelihood that both the Pac-12 and Big 12 cannibalize themselves and get left out of the College Football Playoff, opening the door for a second team from either the SEC, ACC or Big Ten to crack the field of four. (Or Houston … but knocking off Louisville could look less impressive for the Cougars should the Cardinals fall to Clemson on Saturday night (Louisville was down 9 points in the second half at the time of writing.)
The Rebels are on life support right now, but there’s still a faint pulse. They’re living week to week, and that’s a set of circumstances strangely fitting for Kelly, Freeze & Co.
You can’t count Ole Miss out. Not yet. Even a country singer knows that.