Fight or flight? History shows Ole Miss can win Sugar Bowl without Robert Nkemdiche
Succumb or attack?
Fight or flight?
The SEC-focused pessimist might acknowledge, then cower from the obstacles which lie ahead for Ole Miss, in advance of its Sugar Bowl clash with Oklahoma State (New Year’s Day).
These obstructions, ranging from trivial to serious in tone, include:
a) The Rebels haven’t represented the SEC in the Sugar Bowl in 46 years, adding to the external pressure of victory.
b) Ole Miss won’t have Robert Nkemdiche for bowl action, in the wake of the defensive star’s tumultuous week of falling approximately 15 feet from an Atlanta hotel, subsequently being cited for marijuana possession, getting suspended for the Sugar Bowl and then declaring for the NFL draft — thus terminating his remaining college eligibility.
The optimist, in turn, would view both hurdles as bullet-point opportunities for the Rebels to attain a high level of national prominence — coinciding with the fruitful quarterbacking eras of Archie Manning (1968-70) and Eli Manning (2000-03), along with the Oscar-affiliated attention of The Blind Side movie.
The ‘B’ obstacle has garnered more attention. Nkemdiche had been the rock of an Ole Miss defense which currently ranks 10th nationally in team tackles for loss; and when the junior defensive lineman sutained a game-ending concussion against Memphis on Oct. 17 — while carrying the ball on offense — a 14-point Rebels lead eventually became a 37-24 thumping for the home-standing Tigers.
(By most accounts, the defeat also eliminated Ole Miss from College Football Playoff contention.)
The Memphis loss was a sobering reminder of how ineffectual the Rebels defense can be without Nkemdiche, the nation’s No. 1 prep recruit three years ago and likely top-10 overall pick in this spring’s NFL draft.
And that disappointment could easily repeat itself in the Sugar Bowl … considering how Oklahoma State — the nation’s ninth-ranked scoring offense — generates 41.2 points per game.
But all is not lost here. History dictates this much to be true.
For the 1978 Orange Bowl, pitting Arkansas and No. 2 Oklahoma, the Razorbacks — in the wake of three high-profile suspensions before the game — famously fleeced the Sooners by a 31-6 count, thus denying Oklahoma of an outright national championship (due to No. 1 Texas falling in the Cotton Bowl earlier that day).
The controversial suspensions, even during an age of zero social media and minimal TV hype, created a national uproar. In the eyes of the big-time programs (and their rabid fans), Arkansas head coach Lou Holtz was unfairly offering Oklahoma an unfettered shot at the national title. Even Vegas bookmakers fell for that narrative, subsequently listing the Sooners as 24-point favorites … prior to a pressure-packed game they would eventually lose by 25.
That monumental upset, marking Arkansas’ first-ever Orange Bowl appearance, might have been the proudest moment of the school’s illustrious football history — and that includes the Razorbacks’ co-national championship in 1964.
It also raised Holtz’s national profile as a leader and motivational speaker. As legend has it, his pregame speech was so emotional, so full of fire and brimstone, the shorthanded Arkansas team sprinted onto the field — prior to kickoff — in a frenetic, hell-raising manner which has yet to be duplicated in Orange Bowl lore.
And when asked to explain the Razorbacks’ extra motivation for the Sooners shakedown, defensive end Dan Hampton — then a junior at Arkansas, preceding his eventual run to the Pro Football Hall of Fame (star of the 1985 Chicago Bears) — famously quipped, “Coach Holtz said the (first 11 players) out of the locker room will start.”
Which brings us back to 9-3 Ole Miss (second in the SEC West): It’ll be interesting to see how head coach Hugh Freeze uses the Nkemdiche fallout as a motivational tool for the Sugar Bowl.
As a public figure, Freeze is often characterized as a cool, calm and perhaps introspective leader.
But privately, this may be Freeze’s most storied chance to cement a coaching legacy in Oxford, Miss. which already includes one top-10 recruiting class in 2013 (starring Nkemdiche, wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil — all potential top-10 picks for the 2016 draft) … and two landmark upsets of Alabama and head coach Nick Saban (2014 and 2015).
In essence, this bowl period comes at a crucial time for the SEC. The conference hasn’t captured a national title in three long years (sarcasm alert for some, a figurative lifetime of waiting for others), and it hasn’t produced a Sugar Bowl victory since Tim Tebow’s final collegiate game (January 2010 — Florida over Cincinnati).
What’s more, on paper, Oklahoma State might be the weakest team participating in the New Year’s Six bowls (Orange, Cotton, Rose, Fiesta, Peach, Sugar). With the Big 12 championship on the line a few weeks ago, the Cowboys dropped their final two games at home — by a composite score of 103-58; and for the season, Oklahoma State ranks 95th in total defense (yielding 430 yards per game), 86th in scoring defense (29 points per outing) and 91st in pass defense (244 yards per game).
And yet, without Nkdemiche in the Rebels lineup, the Cowboys may be carrying a larger burden of expectations for the Sugar Bowl — despite owning the weaker defense (statistically speaking) and occupying a strange venue for the first time (Oklahoma State has never played in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome — New Orleans).
It’s also the perception Freeze should want, upon cultivating a pregame speech. He’s on the brink of experiencing his finest hour at Ole Miss.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.