Hugh Freeze has accomplished a lot of things in his four-plus seasons at Ole Miss. He’s the only Rebels coach to beat Alabama two years in a row. Last year he became the first coach since Houston Nutt in 1998 to beat Alabama, Auburn and LSU in the same season. Today, he became the first SEC coach to build a 21-point lead over a Nick Saban-led Alabama team.
Those were nice moments, but that’s all they were. Moments. The back-to-back ‘Bama bashings failed to translate into a single SEC West title, and Saturday’s 21-point edge was erased as quickly as it came as Freeze’s 19th-ranked Rebels watched a 24-3 second quarter lead turn into a 48-43 loss to No. 1 Alabama.
After racing 75 yards in their first possession for a touchdown, Ole Miss nursed a 10-3 lead when Chad Kelly found Evan Engram for a 63-yard touchdown to push the lead to 14 with 4:40 to play in the first half. The Rebels’ defense ended the ensuing possession when Breeland Speaks sacked and stripped Jalen Hurts, and John Youngblood grabbed the loose ball and returned it 44 yards for a touchdown. The score stood despite Speaks hitting Hurts in the targeting area and blocking an Alabama player in the back before Youngblood crossed the goal line.
Rather than knock out Hurts, however, the fumble seemed to ignite Hurts — and the rest of Alabama’s roster. Hurts guided the Tide on a 3-play, 50-yard touchdown drive to pull within 24-10 just 30 seconds after Ole Miss pushed the lead to 21 points and, after a three-and-out, Eddie Jackson returned a punt 85 yards for a deficit-halving touchdown just a minute and five seconds later.
Alabama opened the scoring in the second half when Ryan Anderson sacked Kelly at his own 6-yard line and Da’Ron Payne recovered the loose pigskin for a touchdown. Hurts, who played like a true freshman for the majority of the first half, passed and threw for most of Alabama’s 51-yard field goal drive on the Tide’s next possession, but Ole Miss knotted the score with an 18-yard Gary Wunderlich field goal at the 1:47 mark of the third quarter.
Damien Harris, quiet for most of the season to that point, burst for a 67-yard rush on Alabama’s next possession, and Bo Scarborough gave Alabama the lead on a 1-yard plunge with 16 ticks left in the third.
Another Wunderlich field goal pulled the Rebels within 34-30, but Hurts (158 passing yards and a game-high 146 rushing) again engineered a touchdown drive, starting with a 41-yard run on the first play of the possession. Leading now 41-30, Alabama allowed the Rebels to push to their own 20-yard line when defensive end Jonathan Allen turned a quarterback pressure into a 75-yard pick-six, giving Alabama a 48-30 lead with 5:28 to play.
Ole Miss, though, responded. The Rebels moved 78 yards in 12 plays, capped by a five-yard strike from Kelly to Damore'ea Stringfellow, to pull within 48-37 with 2:59 remaining, and scored one play later when, after recovering an onside kick, Kelly (421 passing yards, three touchdowns) found A.J. Brown for a 37-yard touchdown. A 48-30 runaway had morphed into a 48-43 thriller — the Rebels’ two-point try failed after a bad shotgun snap sent the play off kilter — in two-and-a-half minutes.
The game would not flip completely, however, as Ole Miss could not force Alabama to surrender the ball over the final 2:51.
For Alabama (3-0), the win provides some actual adversity after Saban spent a week trying to create his own following wins by a combined 90-16 in the Tide’s first two games. Ironically, the win marks Alabama’s first victorious 21-point rally since Oct. 7, 1989, when the Tide turned a 21-0 hole into a 62-27 defeat of Ole Miss.
Ole Miss (1-2) saw its second loss follow a near identical script to the first. The Rebels opened the season by watching a 28-6 lead turn into a 45-34 loss to Florida State and now, two weeks later, witnessed a 24-3 edge turn into a 48-43 defeat.