Rebels trying to improve, snap SEC losing streak

Published 8:00 am Wednesday, November 7, 2018

OXFORD (AP) — Ole Miss’ football program has earned the reputation of one that plays extremely hard and can occasionally put a bunch of points on the scoreboard.

Unfortunately for the Rebels, it hasn’t stopped them from becoming one of the worst teams in the Southeastern Conference.

Ole Miss (5-4, 1-4 SEC) continued a disappointing season last weekend when it lost 48-44 on its home field to South Carolina. The elements that have defined the past two months were there: Great effort, good offense, bad-to-terrible defense.

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And — ultimately — another disappointing loss.

“The attention to detail is what it takes to get over the hump,” Ole Miss coach Matt Luke said. “You can look at a thousand different plays from that game, the explosive plays, the turnovers in the red zone, but it’s the attention to detail that we have to focus on. The little things it takes to win.
“The line is very, very small in the Southeastern Conference for winning football games.”

More and more, the Rebels have been on the wrong side of that line, and they’ll be sizable underdogs when they go on the road to face Texas A&M (5-4, 3-3) on Saturday.

Ole Miss’ struggles aren’t exactly surprising. There’s been a malaise surrounding the program for at least three years, ever since it became apparent that an NCAA investigation into rules violations could bring serious trouble. It’s about that time the Rebels started to lose more football games, too.

The fallout continued throughout 2017. Coach Hugh Freeze — who led the program to a Sugar Bowl win in 2015 — resigned because of a pattern of personal misconduct and the program was later hit with a two-year bowl ban and other penalties related to the NCAA case.

In many ways, Luke has done a good job just to keep the Rebels from crashing to rock bottom. He had a 6-6 record as the interim coach in 2017, which earned him the full-time job.

Ole Miss started this season with a 5-2 record, giving some brief optimism that the Rebels might be competitive again in the SEC. The offense has several talented players, led by quarterback Jordan Ta’amu, receiver A.J. Brown and running back Scottie Phillips.

But most of those early wins were against weak non-conference opponents. Recent losses to Auburn and South Carolina have put the program face-to-face with the reality that this is probably a long rebuilding project.

The Rebels are still drawing decent crowds, but optimism is waning.

The 42-year-old Luke has managed to stay positive throughout the ups-and-downs. Ole Miss did get some good news last week when it learned that some of the NCAA penalties related to recruiting restrictions had been reversed after the school appealed the initial ruling.

More than anything, Ole Miss is happy to be free of an NCAA case that lasted about six years.
Now the Rebels are free to focus on future improvement.

“Just to put everything behind us — it’s over,” Luke said. “All the recruiting restrictions are lifted, there are no more bowl bans, let’s move forward and go attack this thing and see the big picture.”

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