By Savannah Woods
When I look ahead to an exciting and anticipated Sugar Bowl appearance for the Ole Miss Rebels, I cannot help but reflect on the 2016 Sugar Bowl win and the journey to where we are today.
Looking back to that bowl, each fan had a different experience, a different story, and a different memory associated with the 10-3 team who took down Oklahoma State. We remember Chad Kelly, the confetti, top players headed to the draft, the trophy ceremony, and the thrill of victory. My journey started as a beaming freshman enrolled at the University of Mississippi in the Fall of 2015. I had landed a job working for Ole Miss Football as a Student Videographer where I would be learning and handling coaches and players film. This was perfect for me! I had grown up a die-hard Ole Miss fan, I had old ties to the program, and I was ready to jump full steam ahead into the SEC football mayhem as a student videographer.
After beating Alabama, a heartbreaking loss to Arkansas, and just about everything in between, there was a moment of pure joy as the team was selected to play in the 2016 Sugar Bowl. I remember how it felt to celebrate with my co-workers after all the hard work paid off and we clinched a highly sought after bowl. At the time, the freshman staff did not get to travel with the team to away games, but the long hours we put in at every practice, scrimmage, and home game that season had proven worth it. The Ole Miss Rebels were headed to the Sugar Bowl. Those four years as a part of the Ole Miss Football program was a unique and special period in my life that I will cherish forever. (To this day, my Sugar Bowl ring is still one of my prized possessions.) But now, flash forward to this 2021 season, and I’m an Ole Miss fan planning my trip down to New Orleans.
I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the 2016 game while thinking ahead to this one. Although there may be differences, I cannot help but notice some commonalities in both teams and the journey to this New Year’s 6 Bowl.
1. NFL Draft Prospects returning for the Sugar Bowl
In 2015, there were players like wide receiver Laquon Treadwell and left tackle Laremy Tunsil who returned to play one last game with their teammates and help secure a Sugar Bowl win. This year, it’s our quarterback Matt Corral, defensive lineman Sam Williams, and others who come to mind to help do the same. These players did not skip out or let the team and fans down, but instead, they practiced, prepared, and had the goal to finish the season strong.
2. 10+ Winning Season
While the 2015 football team did not secure the 10th win until the Sugar Bowl game, both Lane Kiffin and Hugh Freeze managed to pull off 10 wins as the head coach of the rebels. Before this historic season, the 2015 season was one of our most successful in recent years. This was the first bowl game win since Freeze took us to the Music City Bowl in 2013. That season was additionally our first 10-win since 2003 when Ole Miss won the Cotton Bowl under head coach David Cutcliffe and quarterback Eli Manning.
This year we have the chance to surpass a 10-win season with this game and an opportunity to make program history. I believe if any team can do it, it’s Lane Kiffin and Jeff Lebby’s dynamic offense driving down the field together one last time.
3. Notable Incoming Recruiting Classes
It was no surprise to anyone when after a 10-3 season and Sugar Bowl win, our incoming 2016 class was an impressive one in Ole Miss football history. Recruits like DK Metcalf, AJ Brown, Greg Little, Benito Jones, and Shea Patterson were just a few people to make up the dominant class Hugh Freeze recruited. That year he had 12 four-star recruits and three five-star recruits. Ole Miss ranked #3 in the SEC and #5 in the nation.
Similarly, this 2021 Ole Miss coaching staff is trending in the right direction. After Day 1 of the early signing period, Kiffin was ranked #11 in the SEC and #25 in the nation for the 2022 recruiting class. Kiffin signed 16 new additions to the Ole Miss football family. A few of the new names we will need to get used to hearing in the coming years are 3-star Larry Simmons, 4-star Taylor Groves, and 3-star Cam East. With another Sugar Bowl appearance and the possibility to win, this signing class will get even better after National Signing Day on Feb. 2, 2022.
Regardless of the differences vs. similarities or where you are this New Year’s vs. where you were in 2016, one thing fans can agree on: there is something special about Ole Miss playing in the Sugar Bowl. It’s an intangible feeling. It’s the butterflies of anticipation. It’s the culture, the city, the people, the music, the nostalgia of the Sugar Bowls from the past and the hope we will be back there victorious in the future. It’s a journey… one I am glad to be back on.