• 77°

COLUMN: Rebels have business to tend to against Memphis

Ole Miss doesn’t get a Saturday off until the second week of November, but yesterday was about as close as the Rebels could get.

New Mexico State offered a breather for the Rebels and their laundry list of injuries. Ole Miss jumped on the Aggies and coasted to a 52-3 win that offered some rest and relaxation before the Rebels continue their gauntlet through the Southeastern Conference that will ultimately decide how this season is going to go.

But there’s some business to take care of first.

The Rebels won’t jump back into league play until Texas A&M comes to town Oct. 24 because they’ll finish the non-conference portion of their schedule next week at Memphis.

And in case you haven’t been paying attention, this isn’t the same old Memphis.

The Tigers are one of the hottest teams in the country under the direction of the one of the nation’s hottest names in the coaching ranks in Justin Fuente, who may very well be coaching the Tigers for the fourth and final season before moving on to something bigger.

Prior to Fuente’s arrival in 2012, a program that once created a Heisman campaign for Pittsburgh Steelers running back DeAngelo Williams had won just five games in three seasons. Since then, the Tigers have won 22, including just their second 10-win season in program history a year ago that resulted in an American Athletic Conference championship, Memphis’ first league title of any kind since 1971.

Fuente has the Tigers on a 12-game winning streak dating back to last season, the third-longest active streak in the FBS. That includes the first five games of this season, which had the Tigers ranked No. 25 in last week’s Amway Coaches Poll and in position to possibly crack the AP top 25 when the new rankings are released today.

The AAC isn’t the SEC. Ole Miss should win — it’s won 48 of the 60 all-time meetings between the teams — but if it does, it won’t happen like it did yesterday.

Chad Kelly, Laquon Treadwell and the rest of the Rebels’ weapons should be able to put up plenty of points against a Memphis defense that’s allowing more than 306 yards passing per game against the likes of Kansas, Cincinnati and USF, but the Rebels and their banged-up offensive line may need to keep scoring to make sure they get out of the Liberty Bowl still alive in any national conversation.

The Tigers have experience and talent in third-year quarterback Paxton Lynch, a 6-foot-7 NFL arm who’s directing an offense that’s scoring as often as Ole Miss and ranks 13th nationally in passing (335 yards per game). Stopping teams through the air has been the Rebels’ problem on defense, and they’ll face Lynch and company with middle linebacker Terry Caldwell making just his second start and free safety C.J. Hampton making his second career start for a defense that’s had to reshuffle with C.J. Johnson and Tony Conner out.

The Liberty Bowl should be rocking as much as an old, worn-down stadium can be at 11 in the morning. There hasn’t been this much excitement in Memphis since Williams was running wild for the Tigers at the turn of the century, and Fuente has turned a recent laughingstock into a program that believes it can win Saturday.

The Tigers, who were off yesterday, will be rested and ready to go. Ole Miss may have the ready part down, but there hasn’t been much time for rest.

A win or loss 85 miles up the road Saturday doesn’t help or hurt Ole Miss’ chances in the SEC West race, but a slipup in Memphis, and the Rebels can kiss whatever hope they have for a playoff berth goodbye.

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