The Ole Miss faithful who encircled roughly two-thirds of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on New Year’s night cleared their throats and sang along lustily as the school’s band belted out a brassy “Battle Hymn of the Republic” before the Sugar Bowl kicked off.
Glory, glory, hallelujah, indeed.
This time last year, the SEC’s bowl reputation was in eclipse. Ole Miss was burned down by TCU in the Peach Bowl, Georgia Tech overran Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl and Alabama was here suffering through a bitter Sugar Bowl as it frittered away a 21-6 first-half lead to Ohio State in one of the inaugural CFP semifinals.
All told, the SEC West was 2-5 in bowl games, including LSU’s loss to Notre Dame in the Music City Bowl.
A year later, the SEC is back to doing SEC things in bowls: flexing brawny muscles, flying around like Usain Bolt chasing a gold medal, and of course about to play for yet another national title.
Ole Miss’ 48-20 rout of Oklahoma State made the SEC 6-2 in bowl games with two more to come Saturday (Georgia in the TaxSlayer, Arkansas in the Liberty) before Alabama takes on Clemson in the CFP National Championship Game on Jan. 11.
The SEC is again on the postseason warpath, and the rest of the nation simply has to deal.
The chant went up midway through the fourth quarter here from the Hoddy Toddy wholly happy Ole Miss sections, echoing off the mostly empty Oklahoma State precincts across the field.
“S-E-C! S-E-C! S-E-C!”
It’s music to a certain conference commissioner’s ears.
“SEC chant is enjoyable part of the job,” SEC chieftain Greg Sankey tweeted late New Year’s Eve night after Alabama finished stuffing Big Ten champ Michigan State into a champagne bottle. “Heard Tuesday in Houston (where LSU won the Texas Bowl), Wednesday in Charlotte, Arlington tonight …”
And New Orleans on Friday. The Las Vegas oddsmakers make Bama’s fans a touchdown fave to be chanting in victory in Glendale, Arizona, two Mondays hence.
Sure, the SEC has taken a couple of lumps. Texas A&M lost 27-21 to Louisville in the Music City Bowl and Florida got stampeded by Michigan 41-7 in the Citrus Bowl. But the Aggies offense is in desperate need of some therapy — this just in: a third A&M quarterback just transferred and a fourth has joined a monastery — and the Gators are a one-handed beast with the way their offense has devolved into guava jelly late in the season.
Overall, though, the SEC is back in a big, bad way.
What has changed from last year to this? More favorable matchups perhaps. Certainly a stronger crop of offensive stars, like Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott, LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly.
Kelly got a bit greedy on the Rebels’ first possession, throwing deep into double coverage only to get picked off inside Oklahoma State 10 by Cowboys corner Ashton Lampkin.
It was but a momentary lapse of reason. The rest of the night, Kelly looked like his famous uncle Jim, simply riddling the Oklahoma State defense with big pass after big pass. He finally took a seat on the bench as the Rebels came with the backups, having thrown for 302 yards and four scores while netting 73 yards on the ground.
Yet another scoring play didn’t turn out to be a pass but was typical Rebels brazenness.
Ole Miss already lead 27-6 when it reached the Cowboys’ 2 with five seconds left on the clock.
Kick a field goal? Nah! Kelly rolled right, twisted around and threw a lateral left to of all people mountainous left tackle Laremy Tunsil, who set off seismographs as he stomped in for the touchdown and a 34-6 halftime lead. The scoring onslaught tied LSU’s record for points in a half set in the 2002 Sugar Bowl against Illinois.
Meanwhile, an Ole Miss defense without safety Tony Conner or anyone named Nkemdiche in sight was getting along fine. Oklahoma State made some progress through the air, but its anemic rushing defense — the Cowboys ranked 108th in the FBS in rushing coming in — was held in negative numbers much of the night. Oklahoma State ended up netting 63 mostly cosmetic yards on the ground.
Especially in the wake of last year’s embarrassment against TCU and the smoking hole that Ole Miss football was just a few years ago, this was a wave the Rebels haven’t ridden for quite a while.
“We had a blast,” coach Hugh Freeze said.
All credit due to Freeze. The Rebels were 2-10 in 2011, the year before he arrived. Since then they’ve won seven, eight, nine and now 10 games.
Under Freeze, Ole Miss has learned to win again, winning in a way that this season helped lead the SEC parade instead of being a bystander.