Compare the states of Mississippi and Alabama and you’ll find much in common. Both are located in the Deep South, both are extremely similar culturally and historically, and both are mostly rural with no major cities or professional sports teams. Even the shapes of both states are mirror images of one another.
Likewise, football is immensely popular in both states. But that’s really where the similarities start to end, especially when you consider the history of the football teams for both Ole Miss and Alabama.
On one end there’s Alabama, a premier national powerhouse and historically one of the greatest college football programs of all time. The Crimson Tide “claim” 15 national championships, 24 SEC championships, and are coming off a recent dynasty, winning 3 BCS titles between 2009-2012.
Then there’s Ole Miss, a school that hasn’t won the SEC since 1963. While the Rebels have three national championships, the last one came in 1962. Alabama has nine more national titles (15) than Ole Miss has 10-win seasons in their entire history (6). For decades, the Rebels have been relied upon as the cellar dweller in the SEC, and later on in the SEC West.
So for two schools in two states that have so much in common, what explains the huge disparity of success in football? While there’s many factors, the main answer is simple: head coaches.
Coaching may be important in any sport, but in college football it’s paramount. Every “brand name” powerhouse team had their own legendary coach at some point in their history that forever affected the perception and outlook of that program going forward. Consider the following schools and their former head coaches: Notre Dame (Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, Era Parseghian), Ohio State ( Woody Hayes), Michigan (Fielding Yost, Bo Schembechler) Texas (Darrell Royal), Oklahoma (Bud Wilkinson, Barry Switzer), USC (John McKay), Nebraska (Tom Osborne) and Alabama (Paul “Bear” Bryant). Other schools found their guy in more recent eras, but the effect was still the same: Florida (Steve Spurrier) and Florida State (Bobby Bowden). No matter who their current coach is and what they’ve done recently in recruiting, the expectation level of success is much higher at these schools compared to most teams. These former coaches are a big reason for that.
Ole Miss simply never had their own Bear Bryant. While many may consider Johnny Vaught as that guy, he brought national titles to Oxford between 1959-1962 in a premodern era and failed to sustain the same level of success past that. Bryant brought three national titles to Alabama in the 1970s and continued coaching well into the 1980s. This momentum carried on and attracted other prominent head coaches like Gene Stallings and years later Nick Saban. Ole Miss just never experienced this sort of momentum.
Why did Saban consider going to Alabama over Ole Miss or other similar schools? Because of past success, the expectation level, and attractiveness of recruits. Money obviously played a big factor as well, but it’s pretty clear that the size of Alabama’s athletic budget is directly relational to the other factors I’ve mentioned.
All things considered, Ole Miss’s upset over Alabama last Saturday was historic for several reasons. For starters, this was Alabama’s first loss in August/September since 2008. The last time Alabama lost in those months (2007), they went on to finish 7-6. But more importantly this was the first time the Rebels had beaten the Tide in Tuscaloosa since 1988 and only the second time ever on the road. Ole Miss had never beat Alabama in back-to-back years. That is, until last Saturday.
And the man that pulled off the unthinkable? Urban Meyer? Les Miles? Mark Richt? Nope.
Hugh Freeze. A guy that was coaching Briarcrest High School in Memphis the same year Saban guided LSU to a national championship. A guy who coached at NAIA Lambuth University while Saban won his first title at Alabama in 2009. You just can’t make this stuff up.
When determining my predictions for this season I had high hopes for Ole Miss and thought Alabama was slightly overrated. But there was one thing I knew for certain. Alabama would beat Ole Miss, simply because the Rebels won last year. Alabama under Saban doesn’t lose to the same team twice in a row. Johnny Manziel had his moment in 2012, but Alabama took care of things the following year in College Station. Auburn shocked the country with its “Kick Six” in the 2013 Iron Bowl. The next year, the Tigers put up 44 points and 630 total yards against the Tide. Alabama still won. Beating Alabama in consecutive years just doesn’t happen. It’s almost like an unwritten rule in college football.
But it did happen. By the unlikeliest of teams headed by the most unlikely coach. If Freeze can pull off a feat like this, to what other uncharted waters can he carry the Rebels? Since taking over for an Ole Miss team that was coming off a 2-10 season in 2011, Freeze has increased the win total each season from 7-6 to 8-5 to 9-4 last season. After upsetting Alabama, Ole Miss jumped from #15 to #3 in the AP poll. ESPN has the Rebels ranked #1 in their Football Power Index and gives them a 43.5% chance to win their conference, higher than any other SEC team.
Whether Ole Miss does win the SEC and make the playoff, they’re in perfect position to have their best season in over 50 years. Quarterback Chad Kelly is clearly an upgrade over Bo Wallace, Mel Kiper Jr. currently has defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche #1 on his NFL draft board, and there’s elite talent at the skill positions on both sides of the ball.
Considering what he’s done so far in his tenure at Ole Miss, is Freeze finally that guy to turn the Rebels into a respected and perennial championship-caliber program over the long term? While it’s far to early to tell, its nice to marvel in the quick turnaround he’s produced thus far. And, too, to see “little brother” get their chance to shine over their rival every now and then.