One can only imagine how badly Hugh Freeze covets a victory at LSU in his first season as head coach at Mississippi.
Sure, the Rebels and Tigers have been rivals for over a century. But Ole Miss (5-5, 2-4 Southeastern Conference) heads into its Saturday afternoon tilt against No. 8 LSU in Death Valley needing only one more victory to become bowl eligible. That would enhance what has already been a notable turnaround from a hapless 2-10 campaign a year ago.
"It's something you wish wasn't talked about as much," Freeze said of reaching the six-win plateau. "It would be nice to have that out of the way, but we don't. There's still a lot to play for. You want it so badly for the fans, but also for the few seniors that we do have. You want the young ones to experience what that is like because we need the extra practices.
"We need that badly, to start building our program."
The end of the schedule is not entirely favorable for the Rebels, who finish with LSU and a Mississippi State team that has already won seven games.
LSU is once again an elite team on the national stage and technically not yet out of the race to win the SEC. If the Tigers finish with victories over Ole Miss and Arkansas, they could win the SEC Western Division — with a little help. To advance to the SEC title game, LSU would have to finish in a three-way tie with Texas A&M and Alabama, which could happen if Texas A&M wins its final SEC game against Missouri and Alabama somehow gets upset by struggling Auburn in the Iron Bowl next week.
Even if that scenario doesn't play out, the Tigers appreciate that winning the Magnolia Bowl trophy this weekend and the Golden Boot at Arkansas the following Friday would put them in position to receive a bid to a top bowl game.
"I can promise you that this team will want to play a very quality opponent and play a very prestigious postseason bowl game," LSU coach Les Miles said.
This season's Ole Miss-LSU matchup looks like a potential mismatch in the Tigers' favor, but Miles knows all too well how the Rebels seem to play some of their best football against his team. The series is even at 2-2 since it was spiced up with the addition of the Magnolia Bowl trophy in 2008.
"We'll recognize that this is a team that has us marked on their calendar," Miles said. "We've certainly been involved in a number of very competitive games, and we recognize that there's a history between the two schools."
Recent history favors LSU, which has won the last two meetings and has been listed as more than two-touchdown favorites on Saturday. LSU fields one of the nation's best defenses and leads the SEC against the pass.
The Tigers have a ferocious pass rush that has posted 26 sacks, led by defensive ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo, who have combined for 10 and each had one last week. LSU's young but talented defensive backfield has also been good. LSU has 14 interceptions, and Tigers defenders are confident in their ability to stifle a Mississippi offense in which quarterback Bo Wallace gets his unit line up quickly and runs a lot of plays.
"You have to react fast to what they are doing. You have to match their tempo," Montgomery said. "If we are able to handle it, they will change their style of play and do something they are not used to doing."
Offensively, LSU has demonstrated more balance in its last two games. First-year starter Zach Mettenberger has passed for 298 yards against Alabama and 273 yards against Mississippi State, adding greater explosiveness to an offense that has averaged more than 190 yards rushing per game.
"Having it happen two games in a row opened everybody's eyes," Mettenberger said. "They definitely have to respect our passing game now for sure."
Wallace has been throwing the ball well all season and he can also scramble, accounting for 250.8 yards per game. He set career highs with 31 completions and 403 yards passing in a 27-26 loss to Vanderbilt last week. If he can avoid mistakes against an LSU defense that forces a lot of them, he just might help Freeze to a landmark victory in his first season.
"We're excited about getting back this weekend and go to LSU and in a really fun environment in front of 90,000 people," Wallace said. "We'll be playing on (national television) again and have a chance to show how much improvement we've had and get back on track."