COLUMN: BATON ROUGE, La. — There are very few teams, if any, that have suffered more heartbreaking losses than the Ole Miss Rebels this year. A one-point loss to Vanderbilt two weeks ago, a three-point setback to No. 9 Texas A&M in October and now a six-point loss to No. 8 LSU.
They all hurt and they all make us wonder what the season could be like if the losses were instead wins. Ole Miss could be 8-3 right now and ranked in the Top 15 or Top 10 of the two major polls. They’re not of course for a myriad of reasons but it’s not because the players and coaches haven’t worked hard or given great effort. That’s not the problem and likely won’t be an issue this coming Saturday when the Rebels play Mississippi State. We don’t know what the outcome of the Egg Bowl will ultimately be, but this beat up group of Rebels will give the visiting Bulldogs all they want. They’ve consistently done that all season even in games nobody expected them to be in.
Of all the close losses this year, Saturday night’s 41-35 setback to the Tigers hurts the least simply because LSU was a 19-point favorite coming in. Some may disagree with that because every Rebel fan loves to beat LSU in Tiger Stadium, and because the setback comes just before another major rival, but let’s be honest, there weren’t very many that thought they would be this close, this late.
Ole Miss entered the game with several injured players. It appeared that the team was out of gas due to depth issues and that the spirit was lower because of the way the Rebels lost to the Commodores. None of those things factored in to the loss based on the final result. In short, the Rebels played as well as they have all season with the exception of special teams and even though the unit gave up an 89-yard punt return for a touchdown, some credit has to go to LSU’s Odell Beckham for that run.
The coaches weren’t happy that a week’s worth of preparation ended with a loss but offensive coordinator Dan Werner and defensive coordinator Dave Wommack both felt like the players are getting closer to winning these close games.
“I’m so proud of our guys and how hard they battled. I don’t care who it is we’re playing, we’ve come out and played hard all year long. It’s only a matter of time,” Werner said. “The leadership we have in there with Coach (Hugh) Freeze, the guys are going to come around and start to win these football games. It’s not going to be long I promise you.”
“It’s going to help them down the road. Sometimes it feels like a death in the family with our guys,” Wommack added. “They fight so hard and they want to win but they’re not all together doing the things that we need to do. There is no margin for error for us in some areas. If you make a mistake, it’s capitalized on.”
Ole Miss has made tremendous improvements under Freeze. That fact has been recited in the media practically all year. The team is more cohesive, in better shape and better prepared than they have been. But while they’re closer to winning these tight games, they still have to get more talent to do it. That will only come through recruiting and extra time in the weight room.
“People out there are watching these games and they see where we’re at and what we’re working with,” redshirt freshman linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche said. “We’re just going to work that much harder in the offseason because we felt that hurt. It’s part of the game. Either use it positively or use it negatively and we’re going to use it as a positive, definitely.”
Losses are tough to swallow, even for the best team, but there truly is a silver lining in this most recent setback, just as there has been in the previous losses. It’s tough sometimes to remind everyone to be patient because even the most even tempered coaches, players and fans have frustration thresholds. It’s coming, or maybe better put, the heartbreak will only last so long before it turns to a more joyous feel. That’s all Freeze and Co. have to work with currently but considering the way things have been, it’s a better feeling than the recent past. (November 19, 2012, Page 1B)