Going into Week 5 of 2014, Mississippi was the center of the college football universe, as both Ole Miss and Mississippi State had started the year undefeated and were hosting marquee games. Whether or not it was fair, the pressure was on to take advantage of the brief limelight that they had. The Rebels faced the more daunting task of hosting No. 3 Alabama.
In a lot of ways, Ole Miss entered this matchup in the same state as the year prior. As always, there was a severe gap in talent, thanks to Nick Saban’s bevy of top-ranked recruiting classes. The Rebels, similar to their 2013 start, had dominated lesser opponents at the head of their schedule. There wasn’t a ton of evidence to indicate that this wouldn’t be another letdown.
The difference was that the touted stars of the 2013 class had another year under their belt, and the defense came into the game with a well-developed two-deep. After surprising many as a productive JUCO transfer early in his career, Bo Wallace was now a seasoned SEC quarterback. Even then, the chances of an upset were slim.
When you line up against Alabama, it’s almost always implied that they’re going to win the efficiency battle and you have to win through other factors. That’s exactly what happened here, as the Tide were better at staying on schedule and moving the ball consistently, with a 45 percent success rate compared to the Rebels’ 35.
Ole Miss did just about everything they could to counter that deficit. The few times they gained significant yards, they took advantage, with 13.5 yards per successful play (Bama had 10.4). The Rebels also enjoyed an average starting field position at their 31-yard line (Bama started at the 21). Part of that advantage was to due to Mark Dodson’s 54-yard opening kickoff return to the Tide’s 39, but Ole Miss began other drives at their own 34, 44 and opposing 31. They set themselves up well.
With Bo Wallace at the helm, the Rebels excelled at finishing drives, racking up 4.8 points per scoring opportunity compared to the Tide’s meager two. On four separate occasions, Blake Sims led his offense inside the Ole Miss 40-yard line and came away scoreless. The Landsharks tightened up when it mattered most.
Following a field goal on their first possession, the Rebels played Nick Saban’s squad to a draw, exchanging punt after punt after punt. That changed with a stereotypically Alabama 12-play touchdown drive that ended with a QB sneak from Sims. Shortly after, Cyrus Jones returned a fumble for a score, which, um, maybe should have been flagged for a facemask.
Regardless, Alabama was up 14-3 going into halftime. On the Rebels’ opening second-half drive, Dr. Bo completed a pass to Evan Engram for 50 yards, which was followed by a 14-yard touchdown reception for Laquon Treadwell. At 14-10, the game was suddenly interesting again. Adam Griffith then drilled a 44-yard field goal to extend the Tide’s lead to seven. After another monotonous exchange of punts, chaos ensued in the fourth.
Down by a touchdown, Wallace was fortunate enough to start at the Rebels’ 44-yard line. Two plays later, he connected with Vince Sanders for 34 yards to tie the game.
On the next kickoff, Channing Ward forced a fumble that was recovered by Kailo Moore. The Rebels went from miraculously tying the game to having a chance to take the lead at Alabama’s 31. Five plays later, Jaylen Walton was in the end zone, having secured what would be the game-winning touchdown pass.
The Rebels had scored two touchdowns in less than three minutes, but in Ole Miss fashion, missed the last extra point. With the lead only being by six, the thought naturally crept into fans that this rally was all a tease. Alabama commenced a final drive at their 13, steadily moving the ball 55 yards in five plays. Then the interception happened.
Once the officials decided that Senquez Golson was inbounds when he caught the ball, the game was essentially decided. Dr. Bo knelt to run the clock out, and understandably, no Ole Miss fan knew how to rationally process what had just happened. Under chaotic circumstances, they had beaten Alabama for the first time since Eli Manning’s senior year (2003).
That night, the scene in Oxford was that of a nation emerging victorious from a years-long war. The goalposts went on a tour around town, and it was fun as hell. I high-fived frat boys whom, otherwise, I wouldn’t have felt any personal connection with. The gravity of the moment outweighed any mantra that emphasized treating every game equally. This was a huge deal, and it would be treated as such.
At this point, everyone knows how the rest of the season played out. Ole Miss was arguably the best team in the country through the first seven or eight weeks, then everything fell apart. It ended with a 42-3 onslaught at the hands of TCU in Atlanta.
Despite how 2014 concluded, the win over Alabama precedes all the awfulness, carrying greater weight in people’s memory than what followed. It’s the ultimate example of how being an Ole Miss fan is predicated on appreciating moments like this. To expect a complete season from Ole Miss football is to ask for inevitable disappointment, but these occasional departures from the norm keep us entranced.