COLUMBIA — For Ole Miss, it all started with Robert Nkemdiche.
When the No. 1 overall recruit in the country decided to attend Ole Miss back in February, the country took notice of what Rebels coach Hugh Freeze was building.
Where: Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, Oxford, Miss.
When: 6:45 p.m., Saturday
In his first full year of recruiting, Freeze brought in a top-five recruiting class and one of the program's best ever. In a few years, Ole Miss would be a force in the Southeastern Conference, most thought.
Instead, the turnaround only took a few months.
The Rebels have played 12 different true freshmen this season, a handful of them in key roles. Even with injuries to some of the top recruits, the rest of the freshman class has stepped in and performed like veterans.
Freshman offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil is an All-American candidate, while two of his fellow freshman are up for All-SEC honors. Four other Ole Miss freshmen are candidates for freshman all-star honors.
“They’re playing a lot of different players,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “There’s no question they’ve done a great job.”
Ole Miss has experienced some growing pains, but nothing out of the ordinary. The Rebels had a three-game losing streak in middle of the season but all three losses came against teams currently ranked in the top 12 of the BCS rankings.
The three-game losing streak wasn’t a trend, though. The freshmen have continued to improve on offense, and the Rebels enter their game against Missouri fresh off a 751-yard offensive blitz against Troy, which set a school record.
“They have good receivers and really good running backs,” Pinkel said. “They have a stable full of athletes at those positions. The numbers they put up and the stress they put on defenses is real.”
While Ole Miss is working with inexperienced players at wide receiver, running back and offensive line, senior quarterback Bo Wallace makes it all work. He’s thrown for 688 yards and six touchdowns in his last two games.
“I’m very impressed,” Pinkel said. “It’s easy to see why they’re averaging 500 yards a game and 35 points a game.”
Freeze is hoping that his team's talented offense will help the defense prepare for the challenge it faces against Missouri, whose offense ranks fourth in the SEC in total yards. Particularly, Freeze is taking note of the Tigers’ tall and fast wide receivers.
“It’s a scary matchup,” Freeze said on the SEC weekly teleconference. “I think we have good sized receivers also, so our guys do have to practice that some. But their size-speed ratio at receiver is really special. It’s not just one of them, you have some tough matchups all the way around.”
Still, Ole Miss’ inexperience could come into play.
Of the Rebels’ top three cornerbacks, two are freshmen and one is a sophomore. Two of the cornerbacks, Senquez Golson and Mike Hilton, are both shorter than 5-feet-10 inches.
“It’s been well-documented that that’s where we’re a young team — on our backend,” Freeze said. “We don’t have tremendous size at some of those, so it’s going to be a great challenge for them to win some of those one-on-ones.”
While Missouri’s offense will pose a challenge for Ole Miss, the Rebels have nothing to lose. If Missouri wins the rest of its games, it will be heading to Atlanta to compete for the SEC Championship. Ole Miss is already out of the running for that game.
And while Missouri is an experienced team with a senior class playing with something to prove, Ole Miss is loaded with talented freshmen who are exceeding expectations. The Rebels’ best days are in front of them.
With two games to play, the Tigers still have everything to play for. It means added pressure, but Missouri is trying to embrace it.
“I am excited about it,” senior cornerback E.J. Gaines said. “People are calling it a lot of pressure, but I just think that is an opportunity for our football team to succeed.”