• 50°

COLUMN: Rebels better hope they’ve learned a lesson

Anybody who thought Ole Miss was going to treat Vanderbilt like Tennessee-Martin and Fresno State wasn’t being realistic.

No, Vanderbilt isn’t all that good, but those players that took the field for the home team inside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on Saturday night? They’re human.

It took every bit of physical and mental strength to pull out the kind of win seven days earlier that’s rarely witnessed around these parts. Going from the high of knocking off perennial power Alabama to what I’m sure players heard all week from people outside the football complex was supposed to be a snoozer against what will likely end up being one of the league’s bottom feeders again is the ultimate recipe for a letdown.

But I don’t know if anybody expected that. And by that, I mean Ole Miss 27, Vanderbilt 16 in a game that was tighter than even the final scored would indicate.

Vanderbilt’s problem under second-year coach Derek Mason has been offense, but quarterback Johnny McCrary took advantage of some soft coverage at times and the absence of nickel corner Tony Conner, dinking and dunking the Rebels with 23 completions for 194 yards and converting third down after third down — at least early — to keep Ole Miss’ defense on the field for 85 plays a week after it defended 101 snaps against the Tide.

The Rebels’ offense looked like, well, Vanderbilt at times, though the Commodores are no slouch on the defensive side of the ball. Vanderbilt brought the SEC’s third-best defense when it comes to giving up yards to Oxford and drifted back in a cover-2 shell for most of the night, daring Ole Miss to beat it on the ground.

The offensive line looked a step slow and borderline disinterested at times, rarely opening up holes as Ole Miss averaged just 3.5 yards on its 42 carries. And when Ole Miss tried to throw, Chad Kelly, who had just one interception entering the night that wasn’t his fault, turned into Bo Wallace at times and let it fly regardless of the look. Both of his picks were into double coverage.

“Just really, really bad reads,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said afterward.

Adding to the Rebels’ sloppiness were a season-high 11 penalties, just five less than they had committed all season. It all required one question afterward: Were the Rebels ready to play after a week full of euphoria?

“I just know that if that’s the case, we’re going to have a long year because this is week-to-week,” Freeze said when asked if there was hangover effect from Alabama. “We don’t have an open date until after 10 games I guess, so we’re in for a grind. We’ve got to prepare better even if those games do take a lot out of you.”

As Freeze also noted, the Commodores deserve some credit for Ole Miss’ issues, but it was obvious the Rebels weren’t fully engaged against a team that’s now 1-3 and will likely finish at or near the bottom of the Eastern Division standings even if the Commodores are slightly better than last year’s 3-9 disaster.

Freeze just better hope his players and staff have learned the biggest lesson of all in this conference after Vandy nearly dealt Ole Miss a disaster of its own, and that’s that anybody here can beat any team that’s not ready to play. Because to Freeze’s point, the Rebels’ gauntlet continues this week with a trip to Florida and includes an all-of-a-sudden juicy matchup with Memphis, Texas A&M, Auburn and Arkansas before their lone bye comes Nov. 14 to recuperate for games against LSU and Mississippi State.

“We’ll get better,” Kelly said. “A win is a win, and the SEC is definitely nothing to play with. Every game is going to be tough, so we’ve got to get ready.”

The Rebels better be. Because playing like they did Saturday will quickly take Ole Miss from the penthouse to the outhouse in this league.

Davis Potter is the sports editor at the EAGLE. You can contact him at davis.potter@oxfordeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DPotterOE.