Lost in all the media attention around SEC West powerhouse and national darling Alabama, as well as the early-Heisman-campaign-turned-to-coal storyline of Dak Prescott and Mississippi State lies Mississippi, a 9-3 team that could have (Rebel fans will probably say should have) represented the SEC West in the SEC Championship had one or two things broken, or not broken, their way.
In fact, by some people's logic, Ole Miss could claim that they are the One True Champion of the SEC West.
Hotty Toddy started the season 7-0, climbing as high as No. 3 in the rankings, before going 2-3 through their last five games of the season. One of those wins was against lifeless Presbyterian, and the following week, seemingly in solidarity with the team they had just slaughtered, Ole Miss went just as lifeless against Arkansas.
Oh how different things could have been for the Rebel's though. Coming off their first loss of the season, a gross 10-7 defeat at the hands of then-No. 24 LSU in Death Valley, Ole Miss seemed to rebound the next week in Oxford. A back-and-forth battle against Auburn for a moment seemed to be headed towards an Ole Miss victory, as Bo Wallace, M.D., totaled 395 yards of offense and three total touchdowns.
Unfortunately, that total was oh-so-close to being 396 yards and four touchdowns, and that last yard and touchdown evaporated when, with 1:30 left in the game, stud receiver Laquon Treadwell's leg shattered at the goalline, causing him to fumble into the endzone, where the Tigers recovered. I was watching when it happened, and as Treadwell was carted off the field you could see the life in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium leave with him.
It wound up being the second of three consecutive losses against SEC West foes, which ultimately would eliminated the Rebels from any SEC championship contention, despite a 31-17 drubbing of in-state rival Mississippi State to finish the regular season 9-3.
Which brings us to the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, where a sometimes really good offense and stellar defense provide the TCU Horned Frogs with an incredible challenge to cap off a fantastic 2014 season.
Ole Miss on Offense
Offensively, Bo Wallace is the One True Leader of a unit that has been sporadic at times.They're 37th in the country, averaging 443 yards per game (275 passing, 168 rushing). They've had five games of over 500 yards, and three games of under 340 yards of total offense, and it all hinges on Wallace.
Wallace has 15 turnovers on the season (11 interceptions, four fumbles), but his streakyness shows in how and when they've come. Six of his 15 turnovers, or 40%, have come in Ole Miss' three losses. He has four games this season where he didn't turn the ball over (Vandy, Alabama, Tennessee, Texas A&M), but he's also had three games where he's committed at least three turnovers (Boise State, Memphis, Arkansas). He's thrown at least one interception in seven games this season, and against an aggressive secondary like TCU's that could spell trouble.
His turnovers are a big reason why, despite the good yardage averages, Ole Miss is just 56th in scoring, averaging 30.4 points per game (that's less than 6-5 Florida, who sits at 30.5).
Mississippi's running game is led by Jaylen Walton, who has a team-high 583 rushing yards, for 5.9 yards per carry, and five rushing touchdowns on the season. He's not the only back that gets carries though, as I'Tavius Mathers and Jordan Wilkins also see a few carries here and there. However, none of those three players lead Ole Miss in carries. That would be Bo Wallace, who has an astounding 107 rushes on the season for just 213 yards (but he does have five rushing touchdowns).
Ole Miss running game, while not incredibly potent, is key to keeping their offense balanced, and without it they're not very successful. Ole Miss is 1-3 when they have been held to under 150 rushing yards this season.
Meanwhile, on the receiving end of Wallace's throws are some incredibly talented receivers. Unfortunately, their leading receiver, Vince Sanders, will not play in the Peach Bowl after suffering a torn ACL against Mississippi State. Between Sanders and Treadwell, the Rebels will be without 87 receptions, 1,328 receiving yards, and 11 receiving touchdowns against TCU. The next men up are junior Cody Core, who has a team-leading six receiving touchdowns this season, and sophomore, and Cedar Hill native, Quincy Adeboyejo.
Tight end Evan Engram, who has 18 of his 37 receptions in the last four games, will also be a factor in the passing game. He's currently Ole Miss' second-leading receiver in terms of yardage, with 651 yards on the season.
On the offensive line, the Rebels will be without junior left guard Aaron Morris, an 11-game starter, due to a torn ACL. He'll be replaced by right guard Justin Bell, and freshman Rod Taylor will start at right guard.
Ole Miss on Defense
Ole Miss has an absolute beast of a defense, and they run the 4-2-5 just like TCU. The Rebels finished ranked No. 13 on the season allowing just 321 yards (187 passing yards, 134 rushing yards) per game to opposing offenses. Four times this season, the Rebels defense did not allow a touchdown to their opponent (Vanderbilt, Memphis, Tennessee, Presbyterian), and five other times they didn't allow their opponent to score more than 17 points (Boise State, Louisiana-Lafayette, Alabama, LSU, Mississippi State). On the season they're allowing just 13.8 points per game to opposing offenses, good for best in the country.
They've only had one game this season where they haven't forced a turnover (vs. Mississippi State), and they only have two games where they didn't have an interception (Miss. St. and Arkansas). They've totaled 19 interceptions this season, tied for sixth most in the nation, and they've intercepted at least two passes in five games this season. Four times, they've forced the opposing team into four turnovers (Boise State, Louisiana-Lafayette, Tennessee, LSU). The Rebels have also recovered nine fumbles this season, for a total of 28 turnovers forced.
They key to the Rebels' D is their secondary, led by All-American senior cornerback Senquez Golson. Golson, despite standing at just 5-foot-9, is arguably the best cornerback in college football, has nine interceptions on the season and 17 passes defended .Lining up across from him is Mike Hilton, the team-leader in tackles with 66.
Behind the corners is safety Tony Conner, who is second on the team in tackles with 64. He's a big safety that plays close to the line, and he's very good against the run. Connor has nine tackles for loss this season to lead the Rebels. Safeties Cody Prewitt and Trae Elston round out the secondary, and are both incredible players in their own right. Prewitt was a preseason All-American, while Elston finished with 56 tackles, four passes defended, a forced fumble and a recovered fumble.
The defensive line is anchored by Marquis Hayes, Fadol Brown and Robert Nkemdiche, while Deterrian Shackleford is the leader at linebacker. The front six (seven if you want to include Connor), is incredible at getting into the backfield. In all, the Rebels have 25 sacks and 90 tackles for loss on the season. They're also holding opposing running backs to just 3.4 yards per carry, and they've allowed just eight rushing touchdowns on the season.