Three weeks ago, when Ole Miss was ranked third in the country and a good chunk of the national media was hoisting them them up as national championship favorites, there were still plenty of Rebel fans that thought it was too good to be true. But I think most of us figured the Playoff hopes would die with some last-minute interception against LSU, or a botched special teams play in Starkville, or hell, maybe even a lackluster performance in Atlanta. Instead, Ole Miss' dream season, the one they've been building towards since Hugh Freeze signed the country's fifth best recruiting class three years ago, bled out on the turf of the Liberty Bowl just seven games into the 2015 schedule.
Before we get too lost in blame-assignment or self-flagulation, let's give an ole tip of Mike Bianco's cap to Memphis, which established itself as a no-joke contender for a New Years Six bowl with a come-from-behind 37-24 win, its first victory over an SEC team in 11 years and its first win over a ranked team since Peyton Manning was in school. The Tigers shook off an early 14-0 deficit, Paxton Lynch looked every bit of a highly-touted NFL Draft prospect with a 384-yard, three-touchdown performance, and a Memphis defense that hadn't stopped the pass all season clamped down on one of the most explosive offenses in the country.
But at the end of the day, an SEC West team with designs on a division title is not allowed to lose to an AAC team, no matter how good it is.
Let's get back to that blame game, shall we. The easy target here is the garbage offensive line, which didn't give up its second sack until a meaningless final drive but forced Chad Kelly to throw off his back foot for the entire damn game. There were inopportune holding penalties, blown assignments and, per usual, a complete inability to provide a push in short-yardage situations (more on that in a minute). Matt Luke needs to go, plain and simple.
Another major culprit was dismal tackling, particularly in critical situations. Memphis converted 12 of 20 third downs (compared to 4 of 13 for the Rebs) thanks largely to botched tackling on the perimeter. Think Freeze wouldn't trade half his paycheck to have Senquez Golson back on the field?
But the most egregious shortcoming of this game was, once again, terrible situational playcalling by Freeze. I'm specifically referencing two first-half decisions to go for it on fourth-and-1. On the first, which occurred with Ole Miss up 14-7 in the first quarter and the ball on its own 10, ended with Robert Nkemdiche coming up short and sustaining a concussion that knocked him out for the rest of the game. Those three points woulda been pretty handy late in the second half.
But the worst call of the game -- and maybe of Freeze's Ole Miss' career, when we consider the overarching repercussions -- was the decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 from their own 34-yard line late in the second half after Memphis had just grabbed a 17-14 lead. The Rebs came into the day as the third worst team in the country in converting third or fourth downs with two yards or less to go. They had already been stuffed on a third-and-1 and a fourth-and-1 earlier in the half. So Freeze, in his infinite wisdom, decided it was a good idea to go for it in his own territory while Memphis had every available ounce of momentum. Look, I appreciate Freeze being aggressive, but at some point simple math tells you the odds of converting that play are far outweighed by the odds of it backfiring. Six plays after Kelly's keeper was stuffed by an unblocked defender, the Tigers took a 10-point lead and firm control of the game.
It's hard to be optimistic about the Rebs turning this ship around -- they just got dinged with two losses in the easy half of their schedule. Ole Miss still has five of its six division games remaining, including No. 9 A&M, No. 6 LSU and the always sketchy trip to Starkville. At this point, it's entirely reasonable to predict that Ole Miss' one-time dream season ends with five or more losses.