BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Third-ranked Mississippi is about to make its second appearance in LSU's Death Valley in the Hugh Freeze era—and how things have changed since the first visit two seasons ago.
Freeze recalls how proud the Rebels were to play the favored Tigers close, only to be undone by Odell Beckham Jr.'s punt return for a touchdown that was eerily reminiscent of Billy Cannon's famous Halloween night runback against Ole Miss more than half a century earlier.
"It was, at that point, a moral victory. We go down there in Year 1 and compete. Obviously, we did not pull it off, but we had a lot of fun," Freeze recalled. "We don't talk about going to play anybody close right now. We want to get a plan together and prepare like we're going to win."
All Ole Miss (7-0, 4-0 Southeastern Conference) has done this season is win while joining rival Mississippi State atop the most powerful division in college football. Four of the top five teams in the AP Poll play in the SEC West, a division that also includes No. 24 LSU, the Rebels' opponent on Saturday night.
The Tigers (6-2, 2-2) are underdogs in this matchup for the first time in 15 years, but are playing with rising confidence and are motivated by revenge. One year ago, LSU was in contention to win the SEC West before being tripped up by the Rebels in Oxford. Several key players from that 2013 LSU squad have left for the NFL, but those who remain aren't shy about embracing the concept of payback.
"It means a lot to this team to actually get back that game we lost last year," said Travin Dural, who leads LSU receivers with seven touchdown catches. "Being that we're such a young team and we're coming along every week, a victory this week would help tremendously."
LSU lost its first two SEC games against Mississippi State and Auburn, falling out of the national rankings for the first time in six years as a result. But the Tigers responded with a close win at struggling Florida, followed by a 41-3 demolition of a Kentucky team that arrived in Death Valley at 5-1 overall and with designs on the SEC East crown.
"We've been using those two games to build up our confidence and come together as a team," Dural said of the past two victories. "We're not the same team we were at Auburn a few weeks ago. We've grown a lot and we're doing a lot of things better."
Here are some things to know about Ole Miss' high-stakes visit to Tiger Stadium:
REBEL DEFENSE: Through the first half of the season, Ole Miss has one of the nation's best defenses. The Rebels are giving up just 10.6 points per game, which ranks first in the Football Bowl Subdivision and they're tied for the national lead with 15 interceptions. Ole Miss has scored four defensive touchdowns this season. Freshman defensive end Marquis Haynes has emerged as one of the program's big-play threats, recording a team-high 7 1/2 tackles for a loss and 6 1/2 sacks.
RUNNING TIGERS: LSU's ground game piled up 303 yards against Kentucky last week and averages 220.9 yards per game. The Tigers use four physical running backs, led by freshman Leonard Fournette, who has a team-high 544 yards and seven TDs rushing. Seniors Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee, and freshman Darrel Williams each have scored three or more TDs on the ground.
CAREFUL BO: Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze says that his offense has taken a more conservative approach because the team's defense is playing at such a high level. Senior quarterback Bo Wallace has adapted well to the new strategy and shed his inconsistent reputation in the process. He hasn't been intercepted in four SEC games and has thrown for 1,899 yards, 17 touchdowns and six interceptions this season.
DEFENSIVE ADJUSTMENT: The Tigers gave up more than 560 yards in each of their first two SEC games, but have improved dramatically since. Their victory last weekend over Kentucky marked the first time LSU held an SEC opponent to only one field goal since 2011, when LSU beat Ole Miss 52-3.
SPECTACULAR SENIORS: The rise of Ole Miss as an SEC contender is often attributed to a stellar sophomore class that includes starters like receiver Laquon Treadwell, defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche and safety Tony Conner. Those guys are good, but the Rebels also are getting elite production from several seniors. Wallace has been exceptional under center while Senquez Golson and 2013 All-American Cody Prewitt have anchored the secondary. Golson leads the SEC with seven interceptions.