Rebels look to rebound in Nashville

OXFORD, Miss. -- The helpless image of Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace lying face down in the middle of Mississippi State's maroon and white end zone has been burned into the brains of his teammates.

It's gut-wrenching, nauseating. It makes Wallace and his teammates angry to think that they were inches away from extending their stay in Starkville on the last day of the regular season. Instead, Wallace, who had a dreadful three-interception game against the Bulldogs, was stripped in overtime just outside the goal line on a keeper that started from just inside the 12-yard line.

His fumble was recovered by Jamerson Love, sending the Bulldogs into a frenzy and bowl game while leaving Wallace buried in the turf and his team stunned after back-to-back losses.

For a season that showed promise of nine or even 10 wins, the Rebels (7-5, 3-5 SEC) humbly head into Monday's Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl motivated and hungry to beat Georgia Tech (7-5, 5-3 ACC), a team standing in their way of a positive jump into the offseason.

"Honestly, we're all just hungry to get back out there," said Wallace, who threw four interceptions and no touchdown passes in the Rebels' last two games. "We're frustrated that usually you have a bad game and then you have that next week to go out and get that bad taste out of your mouth, but we've had it for [four] weeks. With the way we've prepared, we're flying around and I don't think we were doing that at the end of the regular season. We're locked in and ready to go."

It's a good sign that the Rebels are mad. This was a program that won just six games in the two years before Hugh Freeze was hired in late 2011. In two seasons he's won 14 games despite having major depth issues and watching the injuries pile up in 2013.

Frustration comes from high expectations and heart, two things the Rebels lacked before Freeze stepped on campus.

So while the end to this season was a downer, Ole Miss has made big strides under Freeze in less than two years of real work. There's talent in Oxford, Miss., that could make the Rebels a real SEC contender next year and newfound excitement and discipline surging through a program that once fed from the bottom of the SEC.

A win against the Yellow Jackets wouldn't send shockwaves through the college football world, but it would go a long way to generating momentum for Freeze's biggest spring yet with the Rebels.

"We've come very far, but we still have a long ladder to climb," linebacker Serderius Bryant said. "We want to be able to compete for a championship -- an SEC championship, a national championship -- and I feel like where we are right now is a good way that we're working up the ladder, but I feel we have to jump up 10 steps instead of one step to get where we need to be."

Before the final two weeks of the season, the Rebels looked like they were marching to double-digit wins for the first time since Eli Manning was the Ole Miss quarterback in 2003. But the Rebels struggled in the red zone and were run over by Missouri at home 24-10 before falling to their instate rivals 17-10. In those games, Ole Miss scored just one offensive touchdown after averaging 42.8 points per game in its previous four games, all wins.

Bryant and Wallace each said they've noticed a change in attitude since that Egg Bowl loss. There's fire that wasn't there at the end of the season. Wallace even admitted that players bought into their own hype and didn't prepare hard enough during the last few weeks.

That's gone.

The confidence that pushed them to a thrilling 39-35 victory over Vanderbilt and a rout of Texas is back, Bryant said. This team understands how critical Monday's game in Nashville is for the future of the program, and Bryant only sees one possible outcome for the Rebels: a win.

"To tell you the truth, I'm not even looking at a loss," he said. "I know we're going to win. I feel like my boys are going to come together and win. A win like this going to help us a lot and help Rebel Nation because they're going to start believing in us a little more.

"I'm telling you, anybody we played against in any bowl game, we were going to beat them. That's how we're feeling."