By Scott Crumbly
SEC Digital Network
ORLANDO, Fla. – The last time two Southeastern Conference teams squared off on the same football field, Alabama and Georgia delivered an instant classic in the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 1, 2012. When Vanderbilt and Ole Miss convene inside Vanderbilt Stadium for a season-opening showdown on Thursday night, the 271-day wait for another SEC gridiron clash will finally come to an end.
Vandy enters the 2013 season riding a seven-game win streak, a run that began on Oct. 20 of last year with a victory over Auburn in Nashville. The Commodores would go on to win their remaining six games, rallying to their first nine-win season in 97 years after a 2-4 start. Vanderbilt’s five SEC wins in 2012 tied a school record and completed the transformation to an Eastern Division contender in only two seasons under head coach James Franklin.
Ole Miss finds itself in a similar springboard phase following year one of the Hugh Freeze era in Oxford.
Freeze inherited a team that finished 2-10 in 2011 and infused the program with his enthusiasm and spirit. The Rebs exceeded expectations in 2012 by winning seven games, including the annual Egg Bowl against rival Mississippi State in the regular season finale and the BBVA Compass Bowl to close the year. What’s more, three of their five losses came in single-digit contests against LSU, Texas A&M and – you guessed it – Vanderbilt, leaving even more reason for optimism. To put the icing on the proverbial cake, Freeze then hauled in one of the best recruiting classes in school history, highlighted by the nation’s top overall recruit in defensive end Robert Nkemdiche.
Now, as Ole Miss moves into 2013 with a solid foundation in place, the Rebels are looking to build upon the progress made in the past year and take the next step forward as a program – a situation that Franklin can relate to.
"I think there are some similarities in a lot of ways,” Franklin said Monday. “I think there is a lot of excitement and buzz [at Ole Miss] just like there is with us. Last year not only did they have a good year but they followed it up with some good recruiting. Our second year with this program we were hungry for more success and I believe that's where they are at."
Season-opening games always set the tone for the long year ahead, and the fact that Thursday’s clash carries conference implications makes it even more crucial for both teams. Vanderbilt, which has made a meteoric ascension in the SEC, will try to avoid becoming a stepping stone for an Ole Miss program looking to continue its rise to prominence in the Western Division.
After weeks of thudding pads with their own teammates throughout fall camp, the players from Oxford and Nashville will finally get the chance to line up across a jersey of a different color and display the fruits of their offseason labor.
“We're ready to go play and find out how we're going to start the season,” Freeze told reporters on Monday. “This is year two of the journey. I have no idea what the results will be, but I do believe our kids are going to play extremely hard.”
Both programs will look to take another step towards the top of the hill in the nation’s premier football conference starting at 9:15 p.m. Eastern on ESPN.
Thursday night’s game will mark the 88th meeting between Vanderbilt and Ole Miss; the Rebels hold a 47-38-2 advantage in the all-time series…Vanderbilt won the first 19 games of the series, but Ole Miss has claimed 47 of the last 68 meetings…Vandy has won 27 of the 50 games played in Nashville…Mississippi has won 13 of the last 20 meetings in the series dating back to 1992…The Commodores have won their last three games against the Rebels…VU head coach James Franklin is 2-0 against Ole Miss…The two teams first met in 1894, with Vandy claiming a 40-0 victory.
LAST FIVE MEETINGS
2012 – Vanderbilt 27, Ole Miss 26 (Oxford, Miss.)
2011 – Vanderbilt 30, Ole Miss 7 (Nashville, Tenn.)
2010 – Vanderbilt 28, Ole Miss 14 (Oxford, Miss.)
2009 – Ole Miss 23, Vanderbilt 7 (Nashville, Tenn.)
2008 – Vanderbilt 23, Ole Miss 17 (Oxford, Miss.)
A LOOK AT THE LAST MEETING
Vanderbilt mounted a dramatic comeback the last time the Commodores and the Rebels stepped on the field, seizing a 27-26 victory in Oxford. Facing a six-point deficit late in the fourth quarter, Vanderbilt rallied behind quarterback Jordan Rodgers for a nine-play, 79-yard march that culminated in a 26-yard touchdown pass to Chris Boyd with 52 seconds to play. Rodgers finished the evening with 279 yards and a pair of touchdowns for Vanderbilt. Ole Miss fell despite a career-high 403 passing yards from quarterback Bo Wallace and 160 receiving yards from Ja-Mes Logan.
PLAYMAKERS – OFFENSE
Vanderbilt – Jordan Matthews, Sr., Wide Receiver
Matthews is fresh off a 2011 season that saw him set the Vanderbilt single-season receiving record with 1,323 yards on 94 receptions (14 yards per catch). At 6-foot-3 and 209 pounds, he poses matchup problems physically for opposing defenses. Matthews provided a reliable target for former quarterback Jordan Rodgers (he posted a 68 percent catch rate on 139 total targets last season) and hauled in eight touchdowns. His numbers alone are impressive enough, but when you consider that he racked them up against defenses that knew the ball was going his way, Matthews’ stat line from 2012 is even more formidable. He enters 2013 as a prime candidate for the Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation’s top receiver.
Ole Miss – Donte Moncrief, Jr., Wide Receiver
As a sophomore, Moncrief proved to be an excellent go-to receiver for quarterback Bo Wallace. Moncrief snagged 66 passes for 979 yards (second-most in one season in school history) to go along with 10 touchdowns, which tied a single-season school record. He was a major factor in Ole Miss’ explosive passing attack, going for more than 100 yards in a game four times, including outings of 144 yards (Texas), 161 yards (LSU) and 173 yards (Mississippi State). Moncrief raised his game when the competition was toughest, and he will continue to lead a Rebel receiving corps that has the potential to be five-deep in 2013.
PLAYMAKERS – DEFENSE
Vanderbilt – Andre Hal, Sr., Cornerback
Hal was a key cog in a Vendy secondary that was one of the conference’s best a season ago. His 16 passes defended ranked second in the league behind only former Alabama standout and current New York Jet Dee Milliner, and were good enough for 17th in the nation. Alongside fellow seniors Javon Marshall and Kenny Ladler at safety, Hal spearheaded a unit that ranked No. 6 in the country in quarterback efficiency defense. (The Commodores held opponents below a 50 percent completion rate six times last season.) While Vandy works to improve a run defense that ranked in the middle of the SEC pack last year, Hal and company should once again provide stiff resistance against the pass.
Ole Miss – Denzel Nkemdiche, Soph., Linebacker
While younger brother, Robert, comes into Oxford this season with high expectations, Denzel Nkemdiche comes in as a proven commodity at outside linebacker. As a freshman in 2012, he burst onto the scene with a team-leading 82 tackles and 13 tackles for loss to go along with three sacks and three interceptions. Denzel also forced four fumbles, earning himself a spot on the FWAA Freshman All-American squad. At just 207 pounds, the elder Nkemdiche brother is slightly undersized for his position, but he displayed an ability to play the run and the pass (eight passes defended) as a freshman that could not be overlooked.
• Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews enters his senior season just 682 yards shy of the Commodores’ all-time receiving record. He also sits 82 receptions away from the SEC career record.
• Ole Miss has never lost a football game in August, boasting a record of 6-0 dating back to 1991.
• Vandy opens the season at home for the fifth straight season, and it will be the second consecutive year that the ’Dores have opened on a Thursday night.
• Ole Miss is 30-46-3 in SEC openers. The Rebels open SEC play on the road for the ninth time in the last 11 seasons, and are looking to snap a nine-game skid in SEC openers.
• The only coach in Vanderbilt history to post more wins than James Franklin’s 15 in his first two years as head coach in Nashville is Dan McGuin, who won 16 games from 1904-1905.
• Ole Miss opens the season against an SEC foe for the first time since 2003, when it beat Vanderbilt 24-21 to open the year.