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Ole Miss clinging to hope in the SEC West

For Ole Miss, there was no easy way of getting over the loss to Auburn. Star wide receiver Laquon Treadwell was inches from scoring the go-ahead touchdown when he broke his leg and fumbled the ball. The Rebels would have controlled their destiny in both the SEC West and the College Football Playoff. Instead, it looked like the loss might knock them out of both.

“It was a couple days of gut-wrenching feelings around here,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said. “One of the tasks of being a coach at this level is you’re going to lose some of those against good teams and you’re disappointed. You felt like you played well enough to win it, so that hurts even more. And then you lose one of your better players to an injury and that hurts.

“So the combination of all that certainly hurt, but if you don’t have the ability to move on past a big win or a difficult loss, you won’t be very good for the duration.”

The Rebels bounced back with a 48-0 win over Presbyterian the next week, but that was no surprise. The surprise has been what’s happened around the conference since the Auburn game, and it’s opened the door for this Ole Miss team to possibly win the West.

It started that same weekend when Texas A&M stunned Auburn on the road. Then, this past Saturday, Auburn lost again to Georgia, essentially knocking it out of the division race, and Alabama took down undefeated Mississippi State.

It was the like the stars aligned just right in Oxford, Mississippi. Now, if Ole Miss wins out and Auburn knocks off Alabama, the Rebels are headed to Atlanta for the SEC championship game.

“We were excited obviously,” quarterback Bo Wallace said. “But we have to take care of us, and if we don’t do that, nothing else that happened this [past] weekend matters.”

“We’ve preached to them all along, ‘You play until the end and see what happens,’” Freeze said. “There’s just so much football left to be played regardless of what happens out there. The results [Saturday] certainly kept us alive with some very important, lofty things that we can accomplish, [but] I want us to stay focused on the journey we’re on.

“Us being competitive and relevant in the SEC West in Year 3 is something that should motivate us regardless of what happens with other teams. Our message will continue to be, 'Let’s focus on us, take care of us,’ and see where it shakes out at the end.”

Next up for Ole Miss is a road trip to Arkansas this Saturday. The Razorbacks are riding high after a 17-0 shutout of LSU over the weekend. It was the program’s first conference win in over two years and Bret Bielema’s first since taking over in Fayetteville.

The Razorbacks are clearly better than their record indicates and the Rebels know that going in.

“I’ve said all year long that I felt like all seven teams in the SEC West were quality Top-25 teams,” Freeze said. “Because of the schedule we play, that won’t be reflected in all of the polls, but I assure you [Arkansas] is one of the better teams in the country.”

It will also be the first meaningful game Ole Miss has played since Treadwell went down. Against Presbyterian, fellow wide receiver Vince Sanders stepped up with four catches for 110 yards and two touchdowns, but how will this offense look against another SEC team? Can Wallace continue his prolific pace without his top target?

“It’s going to be huge being without Laquon,” Wallace said. “But we’re confident in our guys stepping up. Any time you’re playing on the road in the SEC West, I think you have more of a focus about the week.”

The injury to Treadwell was certainly a low point for this Ole Miss program, but sometimes you have to hit bottom before you reach the top.

And with two weeks left in the season, the Rebels still have a chance to make it to the top.