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ATLANTA – Long an also-ran in the mighty Southeastern Conference, Mississippi is looking like a school no longer content with the status quo.
First, the No. 18 Rebels must get by a team that knows a thing or two about busting up the establishment.
Ole Miss opens the season Thursday night against Boise State, which earned it chops on the national stage as a BCS Buster. This is the first of two Chick-fil-A Kickoff Games at the Georgia Dome, followed Saturday by No. 2 Alabama vs. West Virginia.
The Rebels are a team on the rise under coach Hugh Freeze, who has been able to land big-time recruits and guided his team to wins over Texas and LSU last season.
"Our kids are hungry," said Freeze, coming off an 8-5 season that culminated with a victory over Georgia Tech in the Music City Bowl. "We're excited about our plans. We like what we do. We like our kids."
Ole Miss still must prove it can compete on a regular basis with SEC division foes such as Alabama and Auburn, both of whom come into season ranked in the top 10.
Only four SEC schools have never played in the league championship game, which has been around since 1992. Ole Miss is one of them, joined by conference newcomer Texas A&M and traditional bottom-feeders Kentucky and Vanderbilt.
Freeze is eager to change that. Even though this is a nonconference game, he knows the importance of getting off to a good start against a program that is still nationally recognized despite slipping to 8-5 a year ago, its worst record since 1998.
"Opening up with a team like Boise in the Georgia Dome on national TV is a great opportunity for both teams," Freeze said.
The Broncos twice reached the Fiesta Bowl under former coach Chris Petersen, becoming known as the best program outside the major conferences. They had seven straight seasons with at least 10 wins and were in contention for a BCS bid pretty much every year during that stretch.
Now, Boise State is going through a bit of a transition. Petersen was hired by Washington, bolting just when it looked as though the Broncos might be slipping. He was replaced by Bryan Harsin, whose head coaching resume is comprised of one season at Arkansas State.
Harsin, a former quarterback and assistant coach for the Broncos, acknowledged that the program he inherited isn't as talented as the one he left in 2010.
"We probably had about 12 guys 14 guys that were NFL players," he said. "I think we have those type of players (now), but I don't know if we have as many at one time as we did for those couple years. That was a good run for any team to have that type of talent. But as far as the mentality of the team, it's very similar."
That's got Freeze concerned. He knows this the sort of upset special that has long been Boise State's trademark.
"Their teams have embraced this type of atmosphere in the past," he said. "They understand winning. They have for many years."
Some things to watch for when Boise State takes on Ole Miss:
HIGHER EXPECTATIONS: It will be interesting to see how the Rebels deal with their most anticipated season since 2009, when they started out ranked No. 8 but finished a disappointing 9-4. Freeze has definitely landed some players capable of leading Ole Miss to a championship, including super sophomores Laquon Treadwell at receiver, Robert Nkemdiche at defensive tackle, and Laremy Tunsil at offensive tackle.
CHANGING OF THE GUARD: Under Petersen, the Broncos developed the sort of continuity that's often difficult to maintain outside the major conferences. He compiled a dazzling 92-13 mark during eight seasons as Boise State's coach, but finally gave in to the lure of the big time when Washington came calling. The 37-year-old Harsin was mentored by Petersen but still must prove he can fill those large shoes.
BO'S TIME: Ole Miss looks set at quarterback with senior Bo Wallace, the SEC's top returning passer from last season with 3,346 yards. He's in position to challenge several school records, including passing yards and total yards.
OPENING BLUES: After eye-catching victories over Oregon, Virginia Tech and Georgia from 2009-11, Boise State has lost its last two season openers. The Broncos fell to Michigan State 17-13 in 2012, and were blown out by Washington 38-6 last season.
REBELS D: Ole Miss has plenty of experience on the defensive side, with All-American safety Cody Prewitt among nine returning starters.
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