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A game this big for Ole Miss? Think back 20 years ago to LSU and Eli Manning

On Nov. 22, 2003, eventual national champion LSU defeated Ole Miss and Eli Manning (10) 17-14. Credit: Ole Miss athletics

And so, the question is asked: When was the last time Ole Miss played a football game as important and meaningful as the one the Rebels will play Saturday at Georgia?

Good question. So glad you asked.

The last time was Nov. 22, 2003 — 20 years ago — before many of these current Rebels were born. Jaxson Dart was seven months old. Quinshon Judkins had been around for three weeks. Suntarine Perkins was safe and warm in his mama’s tummy.

Do you remember? If you were there, you could not have forgotten.

Rick Cleveland

LSU, 9-1 and ranked No. 3 in the nation, was the visiting opponent. Ole Miss, led by senior Heisman Trophy candidate Eli Manning, had won six straight games including consecutive victories over Alabama, Arkansas, South Carolina and Auburn and was ranked No. 15. The winner was headed to Atlanta and the SEC Championship.

As I wrote in a page 1A column for the Clarion-Ledger the morning of the game, the question wasn’t so much whether the Rebels could hang with the mighty Tigers as it was: Could Oxford’s plumbing handle the party? Or, could Oxford’s infrastructure handle the crowd?

An estimated 80,000 people descended on Oxford that day. Yes, only 62,000 or so could get through the stadium gates, but thousands more came hoping to score a ticket or to just enjoy the party in The Grove.

Scalpers were getting $1,500 for a single ticket. Private jets had to schedule arrival times 24 hours in advance. “We’ve got a good water and sewer system, so I think the plumbing will be OK,” then-Oxford mayor Richard Howorth said. “Now, as for the roads, the traffic and the intoxication level, your guess is as good as mine.”

Just as now, there were stories written that week about when was the last time Ole Miss had played a game so huge. The consensus was that you had to go back to when Eli’s dad, Archie, played.

Again, if you were there that day, you have not forgotten. The leaves had turned brilliantly red, yellow and orange. The weather was postcard perfect. The scene was, well, absolutely wild.

So often when the build-up to an event is so extraordinary, what follows falls flat in comparison. That wasn’t the case on Nov. 22, 2003, at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. The game more than lived up to the pregame hype. 

LSU, coached then by Nick Saban, was remarkably talented, especially on defense. The Tigers, who would go on to trounce Georgia in the SEC Championship Game and then knock off Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl for the national championship, were an amazing blend of speed, ability and strength, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. 

The deciding factor: Ole Miss could not run the ball at all. The Rebels gained just 27 yards on the ground, allowing the Tigers to come at Eli Manning from all angles with an assortment of Saban-special blitz packages. 

Still, Ole Miss battled to the final horn, missing a 36-yard field goal to tie the game with just over four minutes remaining. Ole Miss was good — really good. LSU was just a tad better.

Twenty years later, the current Rebels face a similarly difficult task, and this time they will be on the road, between the famed hedges at Athens. Two decades ago, the Rebels faced the eventual national champion. This time, they face the two-time defending national champions. No. 1 ranked Georgia is an 11-point favorite. The Bulldogs have won 35 consecutive regular season games and haven’t loss since Dec. 4, 2021, to Alabama in the SEC Championship game. (The ‘Dogs returned the favor, winning by 15 in the CFP Championship Game.)

Georgia is the current gold standard in college football. Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs have been ranked No. 1 for 21 consecutive college football polls. Smart is 90-15 at Georgia. The ‘Dogs won their final four games of the 2020 season and are 38-1 since then. In other words, Georgia has won 42 of its last 43 games. They haven’t lost a game in 1,094 days.

That said, this Georgia team seems more vulnerable than the last two. The Bulldogs trailed by 11 at halftime to South Carolina. They had to score late to win at Auburn 27-20. They were tied at halftime last week with Missouri. Tight end Brock Bowers is out with an injury.

Can Ole Miss win? Certainly. Bigger upsets happen every week. Is the 11-point point spread out of line? I think so.

On the other hand, how do you pick against 42-1?

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