Observations from the Best Seat in the House is back, having taken a week off for the Christmas holidays and traveled to Atlanta for the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. The football team finished the season in a "New Year's Six" bowl, the men's basketball team closed out non-conference play, the women's basketball team opened Southeastern Conference play and the spring sports draw nearer. Here are some thoughts and opinions on the week that was:
- The Ole Miss football team ran into a buzz saw in No. 6 TCU, a team playing like it was motivated by the College Football Playoff snub and should have been in the four-team playoff. The 42-3 loss to the Horned Frogs marked the first bowl loss under head coach Hugh Freeze and the worst bowl loss in program history.
"TCU is a very good team," Freeze said. "They deserved every mention they got this year to be in the hunt for one of the four. They certainly, rightfully, deserve to be in it with the others.... To pick the four is a very difficult task. They certainly could compete with any of those in it, no question in my mind."
- It's easy for fans to be disappointed by the end of the season, but credit is due to Freeze and the 2014 team, particularly the seniors, many of whom were freshman during a 2-10 season in 2011. They helped lead the program to three straight bowl games for the first time since 1998-2000 and their nine wins are its most in a season since 2009. History will be kind to this team, as the underclassmen on this year's team look to take the program to the next level in the years to come.
"I'm extremely proud of our kids and how they've turned this program, in three short years, to being relevant and competitive. I'm just sick that it wasn't that way for them today," Freeze said.
- Playing in his last collegiate game, senior cornerback Senquez Golson provided a bright spot in the game, as he tied the school record with his 10th interception of the season, the 16th of his career, which is tied for third place in Ole Miss. A projected second-day NFL draft pick, Golson remains undecided on his plans for the spring, whether it's playing baseball or preparing for the NFL Draft.
- He did not want to go out the way he did, saying as much to the media in the postgame press conference, but just as history will be kind to this year's team, it will likely be kind to senior quarterback Bo Wallace. He had his ups and downs, and he would probably be the first to admit that, but he finishes his Ole Miss career with school record for career total offensive yards (10,478), and with 24 wins as the team's stating quarterback, he is tied with Eli Manning as the winningest quarterback in modern Ole Miss history. Among those 24 wins: Three top-10 wins, including No. 1 Alabama, two Egg Bowl wins and two bowl wins.
- Much was made about the SEC's bowl performance and the SEC East's 5-0 record and the SEC West's 2-5 record, headlined by the 0-3 record by SEC West team in the "New Year's Six" bowl games. With that being said, a couple of things to consider: The SEC tied its own record the most conference bowl wins in college football history. When comparing the records of the two divisions, be sure to look at their bowl game opponents, which includes the nation's No. 4, No. 6, No. 12 and No. 18 teams for SEC West teams. Also, should one bowl game carry more weight than the 12-game or 13-game regular season when comparing divisions and conferences?
- Speaking of the "New Year's Six," the new format pulled in historic ratings. The first half of the "New Year's Six" delivered the most-viewed and highest-rated New Year's Eve triple header on an ESPN network on record, including an average of 5,013,000 views and a 3.4 US rating for No. 6 TCU and No. 9 Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl. The semifinals on New Year's Day then delivered the largest two audiences in cable television history and the highest overnight rating for a non-championship game on ESPN and ABC, with a 15.5 rating for No. 2 Oregon and No. 3 Florida State in the Rose Bowl and a 15.3 rating for No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl. I look forward to seeing the numbers for the College Football Championship on Monday, Jan. 12.
- Looking ahead to next season, Ole Miss will have perhaps its two best offensive players in sophomore wide receiver Laquon Treadwell and sophomore offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil coming off season-ending injuries, as Tunsil suffered a broken fibula in the loss to TCU. David Chao, MD, a former NFL head team physician, said on Twitter that type of injury requires surgery, but Tunsil could make a recovery in four-to-six months. Freeze said Treadwell, now out of the boot, will recovered by about the start of spring practice, expecting him to participate in some of spring practice.
- But the biggest question heading into the offseason and the 2015 season? The quarterback position. The Rebels signed the nation's top junior college quarterback in Chad Kelly, and we'll know more about his future with the program in the coming days. And then there's redshirt freshmen Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade, neither of whom has separated from the other through two seasons working behind Bo Wallace. It will be something to watch.
- Other questions heading into the offseason and 2015 season? Who does Freeze hire to replace linebackers coach Tom Allen on his coaching staff? After signing four on junior college national signing day, including the nation's top quarterback, defensive tackle and cornerback, how does Ole Miss finish up its recruiting class on National Signing Day (Feb. 4)? How do Treadwell, Tunsil, among others recover from season-ending injuries? That and more, we'll all have to sit back and watch.
- Speaking of looking ahead to 2015, here's Chase Parham's annual look at 10 dates that are significant for Ole Miss during the next calendar year. A must-read for all Rebel fans, if you haven't already checked it out.
- While in Atlanta for the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, I had the opportunity to visit and tour the College Football Hall of Fame. Wow. If you're a college football fan and haven't yet visited the museum in downtown Atlanta, you need to make plans to do so.
When you walk in, you see a three-story-high wall of helmets representing the 768 teams that play college football at the FBS, FCS, Division II, Division III and NAIA level. When you walk upstairs, you walk through the history of college football, whether it's through exhibitions, many of which are interactive, or through films. And then there's some Ole Miss flavor, from a "Speed Limit 18" sign, to an Archie Manning 1970 magazine cover, to a game ball from the 2011 seven-overtime game against Arkansas, and then the helmet wall, films and interactivity of the exhibits will blow you away.
- As part of bowl week, I also had the opportunity to visit Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite Hospital, shadowing three of team's 21 seniors in Cody Prewitt, Billy Busch and Charlie Scott. It was great to watch the players interact with the patients, sharing stories and brightening their day. It gave you perspective.
Another senior, Lavon Hooks, said it best: "It was a great opportunity getting to hang out with kids that might not get the same opportunities as us. It brightened my day, just being able to give back. I think it brightened their day, too, getting to play and hang out with some people they may see on TV and look up to."
- The Ole Miss men's basketball team had an interesting non-conference, defeating Creighton, Cincinnati away from Oxford, while losing to Charleston Southern and Western Kentucky on their home floor. The Rebels closed out the non-conference slate with a 9-4 record, rolling past Austin Peay 92-63 on Saturday. Ole Miss shot a season-best 54.8 percent from the floor, but head coach Andy Kennedy was most pleased by 23 assists on 34 made field goals.
"There have been a lot of things I was not expecting," said Kennedy of non-conference play. "I felt like the continuity would be a little better because we had more experience. The reality is we are still integrating new guys into the way we do things. It took us a while to figure out who's best with whom. This team needs to share the ball. We have to help each other get shots."
- Preseason All-SEC first team selection Jarvis Summers has come on strong entering the start on SEC play. He has scored in double figures in each of his last three games, including a team-high 18 points in the win over Austin Peay.
"Tonight as we were making that push, he was the guy that was being the player we need him to be," said Kenned of Summers, the Rebels' second-leading scorer. "My hope is he's getting back into a rhythm. He understands the importance that he brings to this team."
- The Rebels open SEC play on Tuesday when they play on the road at No. 1 Kentucky in Rupp Arena. Kennedy and Summers both stressed the importance of making jump shots and keeping the Wildcats off the offensive glass to keep the game close and give themselves a chance at the upset.
- The Ole Miss women's basketball team opened SEC play, defending their home court in a 71-57 win over Arkansas and then playing No. 11 Kentucky to the wire in a 64-58 loss on the road in Lexington. The Rebels led for 25:59 of the game, before a 6-0 run over the final 2:22 sealed the win for the Wildcats. Despite the loss, head coach Matt Insell and his team proved they're going to be a tough out for opponents this season.
- With the turn of the calendar, the start of the spring sports draw nearer, and something is whether three-time All-American and reigning SEC Player of the Year Nik Scholtz elects to return for his senior season in men's tennis. The Caledon, South Africa, native played in various Futures tournament this past summer and fall. With Scholtz, the Rebels would return six of their top seven player from last season, in addition to talented newcomers Gustav Hansson of Sweden and Zvonimir Babic of Croatia.
A couple of dates to watch, as far as a possible return for Scholtz, are Jan. 7, when Ole Miss opens the 2015 season in the Florida Gulf Coast Invitational, Jan. 21, when Ole Miss classes begins, and Jan. 24, when Ole Miss begins play in the ITA Kickoff Weekend.
Three areas to watch as No. 9 Ole Miss plays No. 6 TCU in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, the inaugural "New Year's Six" bowl game.
Containing Boykin, Handling TCU's Tempo
Ole Miss coaches and players have compared TCU junior quarterback Trevone Boykin to former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel and Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall, two quarterbacks who were each 2-0 against the Rebels in their respective careers.
The Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year and fourth-place finisher for the Heisman Trophy, Boykin ranks third nationally in total offense (363.0 ypg) and is also on pace to become just the third quarterback since 2009 to average over 300 yards passing (309.5) and 50 yards rushing (53.5).
"You just have to make sure you prepare on every play because he's always, you know, a broken tackle away or a throw away from a big play so we have to make sure that we're locked in on every snap," graduate student linebacker Deterrian Shackelford said.
The other key to the nation's statistically most improved offense in both total yards and scoring from last season has been tempo. TCU runs 79.9 plays per game, while Ole Miss opponents have averaged just 69.7 plays per game.
"As far as the layoff, I think our intensity has been good here," Freeze said. "I've been pleased with that. I have a concern about just how the conditioning will be when we hit the field against a tempo team like these guys, particularly it's just hard to simulate that over and over again, and particularly the closer you get and we've had a Christmas break and you get here. You certainly want to have fresh legs when the game starts.
"But the energy and the emotion that will be involved when it kicks off will no question have an impact early on with some fatigue issues probably. So we'll have to be smart, how we rotate our kids and I think everybody will regain that shortly into the game."
Young Receivers Called Upon
Sophomore tight end Evan Engram has drawn the most attention, and deservedly so, as Ole Miss will be without their top two receivers against No. 6 TCU, but a trio of young receivers will also have to step up to replace the production and leadership of sophomore wide receiver Laquon Treadwell and senior wide receiver Vince Sanders.
"Stepping up is a big thing for us," sophomore wide receiver Quincy Adeboyejo said. "We've been instilling that in our heads since Laquon went down. And when Vince went down, we knew we had to compete even more."
An All-America second team and consensus All-SEC first team selection, Engram stepped up with a career-high 176 receiving yards in a win over Mississippi State in the regular-season finale, but against the Horned Frogs, the Rebels will likely also need contributions from some combination of Adeboyejo, junior wide receiver Cody Core, and freshman wide receiver Markell Pack.
"We know we're down some guys, but we have guys that are going to step up and fill that void," senior quarterback Bo Wallace said.
Rebels Ride Walton
Helped by a couple of long runs, Ole Miss had a breakout game on the ground, rushing for 205 yards in a win over Mississippi State in the regular-season finale. Sophomore Jaylen Walton led the way with a career-high 148 yards on 14 carries, including a highlight-reel 91-yard touchdown run.
"We made just a decision, going into the last game, that he's our best option," said Freeze of Walton. "Let's get the ball to 6 and we wanted to get him a certain number of touches and thought he ran extremely physical, made explosive plays, and we always knew he could and we believe the other can too. But we just made a decision that he's our most mature guy. He's had the most experience in our offense. He's good in the pass game. He's good in understanding protections."
Walton emerged as the leader of a crowded backfield, rushing for a career-high 583 yards and averaging a career-best 5.9 yards per carry this season. He also leads the team with seven total touchdowns. Freeze expects more of the same from Walton in the bowl game against No. 6 TCU.
"He produced really, really well," said Freeze of Walton. "We'll do the same tomorrow. I don't know that it's been so much that he's done anything different. I think he's always been that way. It's probably us just making sure he got the number of touches that he got."
Head coach Hugh Freeze has spoken often about the journey, and he called the program's appearance in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, the first of the "New Year's Six" bowls, a validation of their success earlier this season and how far they have come over the last three seasons.
"To be here in year three of our journey, I think, is validation for us," Freeze said. "You guys again that follow me know that I'm a big-picture guy, and I don't make too much of one win or too much of one loss. I don't think I can afford to do that where we are. I just stay on the big picture.
"And again, for us, in three years to have gone to three consecutive bowl games, and this year being a New Year's Six Bowl, I think, is validation enough that we're on the right track and we were very, very competitive."
Freeze's counterpart, TCU head coach Gary Patterson, has been on a similar but longer journey.
Patterson has led the Horned Frogs to eight 10-win seasons during his 14-year tenure that has spanned three conference affiliations, most recently the Big 12 Conference, where they have competed since the 2012 season.
"I have a little bit different philosophy than a lot of people, being at TCU and being outside the circle for many years," Patterson said. "For all the things that had to happen, to just get into a Rose Bowl, where it had to be written in the bylaws that the Pac-10 team had to play for the National Championship. You had to be the highest ranked team, you had to go undefeated, all the things you had to do to get yourself in that point.
"And still I was sitting in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the Friday night before playing the ball game, knowing if Boise State won, we were going to go undefeated, and we wouldn't play. We would be playing in the Las Vegas Bowl, which would have been fine. For us, we always take a standpoint of understanding. We're very appreciative of the way we get treated, what we're trying to get accomplished and the way our kids should play."
For Patterson and TCU, this is their third BCS-type bowl appearance, but their first as a member of the Big 12, having having appeared in the 2010 Fiesta Bowl and won the 2011 Rose Bowl as a BCS buster and member of the Mountain West Conference.
"This is where you want to be," Patterson said. "It gives you an opportunity to be greater access to get a chance to go play for a National Championship. And so to be honest with you, we probably had a couple teams back in '08 and '10 that probably were better than this team in some ways. They weren't thought of as such, and playing in this league would have probably made a difference."
Friends since they first talked in 2011, shortly after Freeze was named head coach at Arkansas State, their mutual admiration and respect was on display in the joint head coaches press conference, as they interjected and answer each other's questions, trading compliments for one another.
"Let me answer that for him, they're really good," interjected Patterson, referring to the Ole Miss defense. "He's just being nice to me. They played against a guy at Alabama who's really good. He's just being nice. They're really good."
"I should have answered his for him, that tempo offense, I don't know why I voted for tempo," replied Freeze, referring to the TCU offense. "I should have cried out against that stuff, man."
Patterson said both programs have an opportunity to use the matchup, one of only four matchups featuring two top-10 teams, as a springboard going forward to become the programs they want to become.
"I think as a university, as a program, I don't think we've touched the iceberg," Patterson said. "We've only recruited to the Big 12 for two years. So for us to be able to go forward and recruit and do things as we go forward, as we move down the road, I think, is going to be pivotal in how we do things. But I think we're going to just keep getting better players."
"I couldn't be more pleased," Freeze said. "I think I've said it this year. I think we're ahead of schedule and I think our kids will compete. But win or lose, I think validation has been made this year that we're on the right track."
The hallmark of the turnaround of the Ole Miss football program has been the Landshark defense, one that leads the nation in scoring defense and fewest touchdowns allowed, and it starts with the core group of veterans who have seen it all during their college careers.
From a 2-10 season in 2011, to the program's first nine-win regular season since 2003, the unit has steadily improved, from the league's statistically worst defense in 2011, giving up 32.1 ppg, to the ninth-best defense in 2012 (27.6 ppg), to the seventh-best defense in 2013 (23.7 ppg), to the best defense in the league and the nation (13.8 ppg) entering their matchup with No. 6 TCU in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl on Wednesday.
"When I look back, at the last few years, since I was a freshman, it's almost been a little overwhelming," senior safety Cody Prewitt said. "Ole Miss was a dream of mine, and to see and to feel like I was a part of Ole Miss becoming what it is now and what it's going to be in the future has been a huge blessing for me. It's going to be one of those things that sticks with me for the rest of my life.
"I think I speak for all the seniors when I say that this means so much to us because we did come from so far down. I think it was 2-10 my freshman season, but at the same time I never lost faith in Ole Miss, I never lost faith in the program. It just made me want to work that much harder and when this new coaching staff came in, it rejuvenated us."
Four-year members of this year's senior class, such as Prewitt, have helped lead Ole Miss to three straight bowl games, the program's highest national ranking since 1972 and the program's highest final regular-season ranking since 1963, defeating No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Mississippi State in the process.
"People kept talking about Ole Miss as almost being there, almost there, that they almost won this game or almost won that game, and we got to the point where we want to get there," Prewitt said. "We want to be in the national run consistently. We want to create one of those elite programs like Alabama or Auburn.
"We don't want to be one of those teams when they see us on the schedule that they write us off, and that was the main thing for the seniors. We wanted lead a team that was not going to be a pushover anymore. We wanted to be an elite program in the nation."
And then there are those players like junior defensive end C.J. Johnson, also a member of the 2011 signing class, who will be playing his final college game with many of his close friends and teammates. He knows that game is important going into the 2015 season, but he's not ready to turn the page on 2014.
"It's emotional, man," Johnson said. "It's going to be as emotional for me like it is for them. Our class has been through so much. That 2-10 year took a lot out of all of us. Being around those guys, it's going to be really emotional for me. I don't really like talking about it. I'm not ready for it to happen. I'm definitely going to miss those guys."
A win over TCU would give the Rebels their first 10-win season since 2003 and perhaps their first top-five final ranking since 1962, when they finished No. 3 in the nation, but that has not been the core focus for the core group of veterans throughout bowl preparations.
"I feel like this program, me, Cody, Senquez (Golson), a lot of the seniors, we talked to each other before the season started and we told each other that it's not only about this year, but it's about the longevity of this program," graduate student linebacker Deterrian Shackelford said. "We want to come back one day and say we had an instrumental part in building something that was strong."
For some of the Rebels' 21 seniors, the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl will be their final football games. For others, such as Senior Bowl participants Senquez Golson and Cody Prewitt, it's the end of their college careers, but it might also be a springboard for a potential professional career.
Golson and Prewitt are projected second-to-third round NFL Draft prospects by CBSSports.com, while quarterback Bo Wallace is a projected sixth-to-seventh rounder, and linebacker Serderius Bryant and defensive tackle Bryon Bennett are projected seventh-rounders to undrafted free agents.
The first consensus first team All-American and first unanimous choice since Michael Oher in 2008, Golson is ranked the No. 7 cornerback and No. 69 overall prospect, but he continues to weigh his options between playing baseball in the spring or focusing on preparing for the NFL Draft, ahead of the Senior Bowl on Jan. 24 and the NFL Scouting Combine that runs Feb. 17-Feb. 23.
"After the bowl game, I'm definitely going to be in contact with people trying to figure everything out," Golson said. "I don't know if I'm going to be in Oxford training, or anywhere else. I don't know exactly where I'm going to be, but I'm starting to narrow it down and getting everything situated. It's difficult because I have to get plans made, whether I'm going to train, or stay in Oxford and play baseball, or train, or something like that. I have been taking things slow and playing them by ear."
Prewitt became the first player to return to Ole Miss as a first team All-American since Patrick Willis in 2006, going on to earn second team All-American honors in his senior season. Despite fewer interceptions, he feels like he has improved his consistency this season. The No. 3 ranked free safety and No. 71 overall prospect, Prewitt might also see a change in position at the next level.
"I have heard outside linebacker some, but I have heard safety, too," Prewitt said. "I love playing football. Hopefully, I go to a team that would rather use me as a safety and thinks I can be used best as a safety, but if I go a team where a coach wants me to play linebacker and feels like I can be used best as a linebacker, I'm absolutely ready to do that."
Already the school's all-time leader in total offense, Wallace also has the opportunity to become the winningest quarterback in modern Ole Miss history, but he does not see Wednesday as the end of his football career. Wallace said he will move to Los Angeles after the bowl game and work with mechanics guru Tom House, with whom he worked this past offseason.
"I know scouts are interested," said Wallace, the No. 11 quarterback and No. 228 overall prospect. "Barney (Farrar) has told me about some teams. Coach Farrar deals with that, and we have talked. I know I'm going to have a shot, and that's all I can ask for."
Sixth-ranked TCU allowed 61 points in a 61-58 loss to then-No. 3 Baylor on Oct. 11, the Horned Frogs' lone blemish in an 11-1 season.
Despite that outing, TCU ranks second in tackles for loss (8.4/game), second in interceptions (1.92/game), second in turnover margin (plus-18) and turnovers gained (36), fourth in opponents' third-down conversions (28.4 percent) and 17th in scoring defense (20.3 ppg).
"We learned to finish," said TCU senior cornerback Kevin White of what they learned from the loss to Baylor. "It's something we didn't do in that game. We had a lead, and we didn't finish the game. From that point on, we had to finish out every game, no matter what, whether we were up by 20 or down by 20. We had to finish."
The Horned Frogs see a similar challenge in No. 9 Ole Miss, despite the differences in scheme and injuries to three starters in junior offensive guard Aaron Morris, senior wide receiver Vince Sanders and sophomore wide receiver Laquon Treadwell.
"As I watch them, I would compare them to a pro team," TCU defensive coordinator Dick Bumpas said. "They do a lot of shifts and motions and whatnot, which forces you to be on top of your game in terms of where your eyes are."
"Looking at the tape, they have a lot of weapons," TCU junior safety Chris Hackett said. "Looking at Bo Wallace, he's a great quarterback. Playing in the SEC, they have a lot of competition week in and week out. They don't just have the one superstar player on their team. They're a good team as a whole."
On average, TCU opponents have run 74.1 offensive plays per game this season, including Baylor, which racked up 782 yards of total offense on 109 offensive plays, while Ole Miss has averaged 70.0 offensive plays per game, running more than 80 plays just once this season.
"It's not like we're going to change our scheme around just because Baylor did so well," Ole Miss co-offensive coordinator Dan Werner said. "That's something they do every week, and they do a good job with it. There are things they do that we do also. So obviously, that's stuff we'd put in and maybe emphasize more than we usually do. We're going to run our offense, do what we do best and go fast and let these guys play and make plays."
Rest, Treatment Beneficial to O-Line
Ole Miss used the same starting five offensive linemen for each of the first seven games, all wins, before mixing and matching combinations against LSU, Auburn and Presbyterian, and then returning to full strength against Arkansas and Mississippi State.
Even then, sophomore offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil battled a right shoulder injury, while junior center Ben Still continued to push through a knee injury.
With some time off between the regular-season finale against Mississippi State and the start of bowl practices, the duo and the entire offensive line are in much better shape entering their matchup with No. 6 TCU.
"I'm getting old, man," Tunsil said. "Everything was hurting. Mainly, it was just my right shoulder, having a torn labrum, but I feel better since I have healed up and had some treatment."
"It's been good because I injured my knee against Tennessee, and it never really got back all the way, so it was a good time for some time off to get it back," Still said.
The Rebels, however, will be without junior offensive guard Aaron Morris, who underwent surgery to repair his torn ACL. In his place, junior Justin Bell will move from right guard to left guard, and freshman Rod Taylor will make his second career start, at right guard.
"He's caught on a whole lot," said Still of Taylor. "You don't have to say much to him. From day one to now, he's improved exponentially. It's great. You used to have to tell him everything. Now, we can trust him."
"He plays with passion and helps us out tremendously," said Bell of Taylor. "It makes it a more enjoyable experience, getting a young guy in there and knowing he's going to play 60 minutes, give it everything he has."
When No. 9 Ole Miss faces No. 6 TCU in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl on Wednesday, the Rebels will be without each of their top two receivers in sophomore wide receiver Laquon Treadwell (leg, ankle) and senior wide receiver Vince Sanders (ACL).
In their place, sophomore tight end Evan Engram has emerged as a favorite target for senior quarterback Bo Wallace, hauling in five passes for a career-high 176 receiving yards, the fourth-most in a game in a game in Ole Miss history, in a win over then-No. 4 Mississippi State.
"Hopefully he will play the way he did against Mississippi State and we expect that, because he's so explosive and a guy that's a mismatch," Wallace said. "So we know we're down some guys, but we have guys that are going to step up and fill the void."
An All-America second team and consensus All-SEC first team selection, Engram leads all SEC tight ends with 651 receiving yards and 17.6 yards per catch. He is also tied for the national lead with 11 plays of 20-plus yards and six plays of 30-plus yards this season.
"He's not a tight end," TCU senior linebacker Tank Carder said. "He's a receiver. Those guys moving in and out of formations, get a lot of one-on-ones, and I compare him to probably a Jimmy Graham because of the way those guys use him. Sometimes he's outside, sometimes he's inside. He's very fast to me, when I watch him. He blocks very well. So he's a tight end mixed with a receiver, but he's amazing. He's probably one of the best tight ends I've faced this year and probably last year also."
Known more as a receiver, Engram said one of the biggest things he learned from getting hurt last season was dropping his feet when called on to block, adding that he feels a lot more confident and comfortable against defensive end and linebackers this season.
"That's the thing with this offense," Engram said. "It can be either one. They can throw me in there to be physical at the line of scrimmage and throw up a block and try to open up a run and then split me out wide and run a post down the field. This offense is very versatile. There's a lot of positions a lot of people can play."
Engram has had some of his biggest games on the biggest stage and against the best competition. In addition to a career game in the win over Mississippi State, Engram caught three passes for 71 yards against then-No. 1 Alabama and eight passes for 118 yards and a touchdown against then-No. 3 Auburn.
"It's the pressure," Engram said. "It's a different atmosphere. I'm just trying to help my team win, stepping up when my name is called. In the big games, they need everybody and everything clicking, and I'm part of that, so I have to show up and do my job. In the big games, that's when it's most important."
As sophomores, Engram and the historic 2013 signing class have grown into larger roles and helped Ole Miss to its first nine-win regular season since 2003 and its highest final regular-season ranking since 1963.
"Last year, all the freshmen were quiet and didn't know what was going on," Engram said. "As we started getting our feet wet in the SEC and playing in the big games in front of big crowds, we started getting more comfortable and definitely getting more experience."
When they signed on National Signing Day 2013, the Rebels were coming off a 7-6 season, capped by a win over Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl. From there, they have raised the program to national relevance, and with a win over the Horned Frogs, they move that much closer to their ultimate goal.
"When we all signed here, we wanted to help try to bring a national championship here," Engram said. "Last year, we had some injuries and we had a promising season, but some of those injuries hurt. This year, maybe if one or two plays went differently, we would possible have one loss and possibly looking at a playoff berth.
"We're gradually getting to our goal. Coming in here and being a class that's turn the program is a huge privilege, but it takes a lot of work and dedication. We're so dedicated to helping turn things around. We're getting closer and closer."
From a 2-10 season, when many players from this year's senior class were freshmen, to perhaps the program's seventh 10-win season in program history, Ole Miss has climbed the ladder to national relevance, and a matchup with No. 6 TCU in the first "New Year's Six" bowl game is the next rung on the ladder.
"We went from Birmingham, to Nashville, and now we're in the Peach Bowl," senior linebacker Serderius Bryant said. "It's rising. We're taking ladders. Instead of taking a step up, we're taking elevators and we're taking floors up."
"This is the first year of the Playoffs and we're really privileged to be here," sophomore tight end Evan Engram said. "It's going to be a fun feeling to have all eyes on us with everyone waking up to spend New Year's Eve watching us ball."
Ole Miss started the season 7-0 and rose as high as No. 3 in the polls, debuting at No.4 in the first College Football Playoff top 25 rankings, before finishing the season 9-3 and ranked No. 9 in the final College Football Playoff rankings.
After a 7-0 start, the Rebels lost three straight Southeastern Conference games, three of four games overall, before closing out the regular season with a 31-17 win over then-No. 4 Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl.
"We thought we could have done better, personally, and I know a lot of the other guys feel that way too," sophomore defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche said. "We have to take every game, one game at a time. Sometimes during this past season, we started looking ahead and we started overlooking some games, and it caught up with us."
"We looked ahead against Arkansas, worried about Mississippi State," sophomore offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil said. "That's a big lesson learned. You can't overlook any team, not even the weakest team. You can't overlook a team. You see what Arkansas did to us."
A win over TCU, players have said throughout bowl preparations, would give the program confidence and momentum heading into the 2015 season.
"It's a big game for our program, so we want to get this 'W,'" Nkemdiche said. "This game is going to help set us up for next year and give us big things to look forward to."
"For our program that is on the rise, we feel like that's a big step for our program," junior cornerback Mike Hilton said. "This New Year's Six Bowl is going to be a good one. It could take our program to the next level."
14 For '14,
2013 World Championships,
2014 Season Highlight,
2014 World Cup,
2014 World Cup Brazil,
2014 Year in Review,
2015 NFL Draft,
2016 Summer Olympics,
3 Things About Gameday,
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38: The Chucky Mullins Effect,
A Year in Review,
Alabama Crimson Tide,
Armintie Price Herrington,
Athletics Week in Review,
BBVA Compass Bowl,
Be The Fan,
Best of the Season,
Best Seat in the House,
Billy Van Devender,
Boise State Broncos,
Boise State Football,
Bram ten Berge,
By The Numbers,
C Spire Conerly Trophy,
Cal Ripken Senior League,
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Can't Be Denied,
Cape Cod League,
Chick-fil-A Bowl Challenge,
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From The Vault,
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Give To Athletics,
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Lock The Vaught,
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Meet The Rebels Day,
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