There's a different air surrounding this week's primetime showdown with No. 8 Missouri, the Rebels' first top-10 test since a 27-24 win over then-No. 6 LSU back on Oct. 19.
"It's a huge week for us," junior quarterback Bo Wallace said. "We get to see how good we are. We had some games that we felt like we didn't play as well in that we could have been in, but this is our redemption game that we can go back and see how good we are."
"In the weight room yesterday, it was crazy," junior linebacker Serderius Bryant said. "No one was talking or doing anything. We're telling each other this a game that no one should have to get you amped for. You should be motivated and feel that urge to do what you can do.
The Rebels (7-3, 3-3 SEC) have won four straight, having eclipsed 500 total offense yards in each of the four games, including a school-record 751 against Troy this past Saturday. They also re-entered the BCS and Associated Press polls at No. 24.
The Tigers (9-1, 5-1 SEC) rank in the top three in the SEC and top 20 in the nation in both scoring offense (41.3 points per game) and scoring defense (20.2). Other than their loss to South Carolina, none of their wins have been decided by less than 15 points.
"I don't know that having to win the game will answer the question, 'Are you really a top-25 team?'" Freeze said. "But if we go out, compete and have a chance to win it, that's what we're asking for right now out of our kids in Year Two.
"Let's go find out where we stand and how we match up with the elite in the nation right. Hopefully, we'll be in it at the end and see. With the schedule we have played, looking back on it, we have had our share of tests, and this will be another one Saturday night."
When asked about keys to the matchup, Freeze mentioned two specifically: running the ball effectively and eliminating explosive plays in the passing game.
"We're pretty good when we can run it and mix in the play-action pass and the stuff we like to do off our run game," Freeze said. "When we're not running it -- you look at the Alabama and Auburn games -- we're not the same team.
"(Cornerbacks coach) Jason Jones put together a reel of their explosive receivers play, and it's quite impressive, so we have a tall task there. If we can eliminate those and are able run the ball the ball effectively, that will go a long way in helping us be in this game.
The Challenge On Defense
Senior James Franklin is listed as the starter at quarterback for the Tigers this week, having missed the last four games since suffering a shoulder injury against Georgia on Oct. 12.
Franklin averages 225.3 passing yards per game and has thrown for 14 touchdowns with just three interceptions. His backup, redshirt freshman Maty Mauk, averages 95.1 passing yards per game and 10 touchdowns with just two interceptions.
"There's not much difference in the two quarterbacks, so that's the good thing," Freeze said. "They are going to be who they are. They have done the exact same things with their second guy that they do with their first guy, so it's not like you're preparing for two different schemes. They have confidence in both of them and have good reason to."
The Tigers also have a talented group of receivers, led by sophomore Dorial Green-Beckham and senior L'Damian Washington who each have 500-plus receiving yards and nine touchdowns. Each of their four starting receivers are listed at 6-foot-2 or taller, with Green-Beckham at 6-foot-6 and Washington at 6-foot-4.
Ole Miss junior cornerback Senquez Golson compared it to playing against three or four Mike Evans from Texas A&M. Both he and sophomore cornerback Mike Hilton said it's about playing physical with the tall, speedy receivers from Missouri.
"That's a physics problem that we can't solve," said Freeze of their height. "It's a concern for sure because there are times where their guys are more able to make a play on the ball than some defensive backs they have faced. That is a great concern and something that we have to try to figure out what the best answers are when those cases arise."
The Challenge On Offense
One of the keys to the game, Freeze said, is Missouri's ability to stop the run. The Tigers rank second in the league and 14th nationally in rushing defense (111.9 ypg). In earlier losses to Alabama and Auburn, Ole Miss rushed for 46 and 124 yards, respectively.
In recent games, the Rebels have run the ball better, including a season-high 382 yards against Troy, and Freeze credited the offensive line progressing and being more multiple, while senior offensive linemen Pierce Burton and Emmanuel McCray credited continuity and working better with double teams.
"Very few people have been able to line up and just run the ball effectively on them to keep you off balance, and then they get you one-dimension and those ends are quick and cause trouble in the backfield for you," Freeze said. "We have to try to find a way to run the ball effective enough so that we can be who we are and want to be and keep them thinking we're balanced, which we have been as of late."
Missouri also does a great job of generating pressure and forcing turnovers, and it starts with their defensive line.
The Tigers lead the league in sacks and rank third nationally with 34 sacks, as well as lead the league and rank seventh nationally with 17 interceptions. It's a great challenge for junior quarterback Bo Wallace, who after throwing 17 interceptions last year, has only been picked off five times through 10 games this season.
"Sometimes the pressure is causing some of it, but they do a great job also of mixing up their coverages and causing you to want to be greedy," Freeze said. "If you're not patient against them, because they're going to make you go 8, 10, 12-play drives to get points and they're very good in the red zone. In most of their games, they're ahead and forcing you to throw a lot, and they're stopping the run, so the sacks are coming because when they get you in a position where they know you have to throw, their guys are very good at that."
"I have to be sharp every week, no matter who we play," Wallace said. "We play in probably the best conference in America. Every week, we're going to play against guys who can go get the ball and great defensive backs. There are great defenses in this league, so it's the same every week."
Their defensive line is led by a talented duo at the ends. Senior Michael Sam leads the league and ranks sixth nationally with 10 sacks and also leads the league and ranks fifth nationally with 16 tackles for loss. On the other side, junior Kony Ealy, ranks fourth in the SEC with 6.5 sacks and leads the team with 13 quarterback hurries.
"They do a lot of movement, so it will be a unique challenge for us," Burton said. "It's not just like I'm watching a defensive end every time. The defensive end is going to be slanting. They're doing run-game twists on first down. We haven't seen that all year except for SEMO. That's a really unique thing to see."
"They are very talented," McCray said. "They are slated as one of the best in the SEC. They play pretty hard and all have pretty good motors. It's not just about outstanding ability, they all play as a good unit."