Ole Miss cleared a major hurdle Saturday night.
It had been three seasons since Ole Miss hoisted the Golden Egg. Three seasons with its fans and players inundated with rhetoric from its in-state rival. Three seasons of not-so-close rivalry games; games Mississippi State put far more emphasis on than did Ole Miss.
That all changed. Final: Ole Miss 41, Mississippi State 24. A blowout.
Ole Miss bowl eligible for the first time since 2009, punching its ticket in the final game of the regular season, and the Rebels did it in style. Their start wasn't pretty, including three turnovers and a kickoff return for a touchdown in the first half. But the second half? Flawless.
When Bo Wallace hit Vince Sanders for a 16-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter, his fifth touchdown pass in the game, Mississippi State fans flocked to the exits. A raucous collection of Ole Miss fans only cheered more. Because this game was a long time coming. This game encompassed all the struggles of the last two seasons. This game meant everything to Ole Miss and Freeze, in his first year as head coach.
This was the game that mattered most.
"I think that anyone that's been around here through the difficulty of the last two seasons … I know that we had some challenges," Freeze said afterwards.
"I can stand here tonight, 12 games, our kids played with attitude and effort. We weren't the prettiest all the time, but I can't question their heart and their effort and their pride that they played with."
This wasn't the most talented Ole Miss team, mind you. There are still depth issues across the board. Robert Nkemdiche headlined a star-studded list of visitors. Ole Miss needs as many as it can get. Robert's brother, Denzel, a linebacker for Ole Miss, told me after the game Robert intends to commit in two weeks.
Each week, game-in and game-out, this team played as hard as it could. Every. Single. Week. The reward? Bowl eligibility, a season removed from 2-10 and 0-8 in Southeastern Conference games.
The job Freeze has done in his first year is nothing short of remarkable. When he arrived last December, some 25 players were in academic trouble. The program was broken. Freeze had to do his best Bob the Builder impression.
Ole Miss (6-6, 3-5 SEC) is likely headed to the BBVA Compass Bowl. Yes, the Liberty Bowl wants Ole Miss, having attended all of its home games. It wants Ole Miss for a myriad of reasons, none more than the fact that Ole Miss fans would fill the stadium to capacity.
But the Compass Bowl has a higher priority this year. Whatever. A bowl is a bowl is a bowl this season. The Rebels weren't supposed to be here, yet here they are.
"We're going to have some fun times together," Freeze said. "Those kids have been through some difficult times. Now, they hear the good side of it. Thrilled."
Bowl talk can wait for a week or so. Saturday should get all the attention, any and all words this laptop can muster.
Ole Miss lost three games it led midway through the fourth quarter this season: Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and LSU. The Rebels were losers of three-straight games enter Saturday. They were banged up. They were reeling. Mississippi State, meanwhile, had eight wins.
It didn't matter.
Freeze didn't say much throughout the week. He didn't want to draw attention to himself, give Mississippi State any billboard material leading up to the game. Basically, the anti-Dan Mullen.
Initially, he wasn't going to allow his players to talk to the media. Same reasoning. Players were eventually made available only on Monday. After that, just coaches.
But behind closed doors, he was talking plenty. This game meant something to him. It was personal. Houston Nutt never truly understood the Egg Bowl rivalry. Freeze gets it, and it showed with the blowout win Ole Miss hung on Mississippi State.
"I'm so proud of the way they competed and bounced back after gut-wrenching losses," Freeze said. "Every single week, our kids and coaches responded. What a season. I couldn't be more proud of how they bounced back and showed resiliency and toughness."
Freeze has a process. There are steps in the process, some of those steps more like hurdles.
Students rushed the field after the horn sounded, celebrating with players as the Egg Bowl trophy made its way across Vaught-Hemingway Stadium and into the IPF. There was a collective sigh of relief, the nightmares of back-to-back dreadful seasons now squarely in the rearview mirror.
Mississippi State, the giant elephant of hurdles, was finally jumped. Now, Ole Miss moves forward.