Ole Miss and Oklahoma State arrived in New Orleans on Saturday anticipating a week of fun leading up to Friday’s Sugar Bowl.
After all, isn’t that what bowl games, especially in the Crescent City, are supposed to be all about?
And aren’t the Orange and the Cotton this season’s only bowls that really matter because they’re the College Football Playoff semifinals?
Neither of this year’s Sugar Bowl teams are even in the top 10 nationally, something that’s happened only twice before in the game’s 82-year history.
But the 9-3 Rebels and the 10-2 Cowboys would beg to differ about the importance of the game and thus how they are approaching it.
Ole Miss is one of five programs to reach a New Year’s Six bowl game in each of the first two seasons of the CFP, but the pride in that accomplishment is tempered by the way the Rebels performed in a 42-3 loss to TCU in the Peach Bowl last season.
Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said it’s always tricky trying to read players’ minds, but he’s sure of one thing about the memory of last year’s bowl.
“I can tell you that it has fueled me and my approach and my staff, which I hope translates to our players also,” Freeze said after arriving Saturday night.
For Oklahoma State, this game is a chance to bounce back from losses to Baylor and Oklahoma in the Cowboys’ last two games after they’d reached No. 6 in the CFP rankings and had a semifinal berth within their grasp.
It’s a contrast from last season, when the Cowboys upset Oklahoma in overtime to snap a five-game losing streak and gain bowl eligibility followed by upsetting Washington in the Cactus Bowl.
“We definitely have something to prove,” senior wide receiver David Glidden said. “The way we ended last year is the note we want to go out on this year.
“That’s why it wasn’t tough for us to get back in the swing of things. We’ve got a lot of guys who are very competitive, and they want to go out there, make their marks and get ready for the game.”
The Rebels are getting ready to play without their best defensive player. All-America defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche was suspended after injuring himself in a fall at an Atlanta hotel and subsequently being arrested for marijuana possession.
Redshirt freshman Breeland Speaks will start in Nkemdiche’s place.
“It’s an opportunity for other guys to make a statement about what they can do,” senior defensive back Mike Hilton said. “I think (Speaks) is going to do well.”
At Oklahoma State, there have been no such incidents in recent weeks. Neither do the Cowboys have any academic casualties, a point of pride for OSU coach Mike Gundy.
“When you have about 125 young men between 17 and 23, there are usually going to be issues,” he said. “And we want them to enjoy their lives, enjoy college and enjoy their time with each other.
“But this is also a very committed team, which personally means a lot to the coaching staff. We’ve suffered some setbacks, but we’re here and we’re going to enjoy this bowl.”
The Cowboys do have an unresolved situation at quarterback.
Sophomore Mason Rudolph, the starter throughout the season, suffered a foot injury in the Baylor game and lasted only three plays in the Oklahoma game before giving way to senior J.W. Walsh, who had played mostly in short yardage situations previously.
Rudolph underwent surgery Dec. 4. On Saturday, Gundy suggested both Rudolph and Walsh would play in the Sugar Bowl.
“It’s going to be interesting to see what we can come up with,” he said.
Freeze said Ole Miss has studied film of both quarterbacks and will be ready for both.
Even without the quarterback situation, Gundy said his team is facing a big challenge.
“Defensively they are fast and big up front,” he said of the Rebels, even without Nkemdiche. “Their quarterback is very competitive, and they have great wideouts.”
Freeze said he was eager to “look (the Rebels) in the eye” when he met with them later Saturday night. The Rebels were scheduled to follow their team meeting with a workout in the team hotel.
“I’m really pleased with how we’ve handled the outlook of this bowl, what our goal is to do here,” tight end Evan Engram said. “Last year, we were focused, and we were ready to play, but last year was kind of an eyes-wide kind of thing, and we weren’t really locked in like we should be. This year, we’re down here to win this thing.
“There’s not going to be a minute that goes by that we’re not thinking about doing everything we need to do to win this bowl game.”
To Gundy, the Cowboys also have the right mindset about this game.
“There’s always a sense of urgency to play well,” he said. “You want to prepare, compete and try to be successful in every game.
“We’ve worked hard in practice and we’re coming in fresh. Now that we’re here, we’re looking forward to eating some good food, having more good practices and getting ourselves ready for a big game.”