Last year’s game against Mississippi might have been the most perplexing in the Kevin Sumlin tenure.
Texas A&M was ranked in the Top 10. The Aggies were in position to play for an invitation to the Sugar Bowl. And they were at home, facing a reeling Rebels team forced to start a quarterback who had never played a down of college football.
Sure, the Aggies also were starting a backup, but Jake Hubenak was a veteran. Ole Miss’ Shea Patterson, a recruiting phenom, had never thrown a pass.
Yet Patterson led the Rebels to 23 straight points and a 29-28 win that was sealed with a field goal with 37 seconds remaining in the game. It was Mississippi’s third straight win over A&M. The Rebels beat only two teams from Power Five conferences last season — A&M and Georgia.
Sumlin was asked this week about his team’s futility against the Rebels. A&M will play them Saturday night in Oxford. He’s 3-2 against Ole Miss, winning in 2012 and 2013, the Johnny Manziel years. But even in those games, the Aggies needed dramatic fourth-quarter plays.
Sumlin wanted to dodge the question, choosing to revel in the warm optimism generated by a 55-14 victory over New Mexico last Saturday.
“Can’t we just win?” Sumlin asked.
“I don’t know why we’ve struggled with Ole Miss,” he said. “More and more, it’s about matchups. Some people and styles of play can create issues for different people. I don’t know why that is. I treat every game as mutually exclusive.”
After Mississippi, the Aggies (6-4, 3-3 in SEC play) will end the regular season on the road against LSU on Nov. 25. Sumlin probably needs to win both games to keep his job.
Matt Luke, Mississippi’s interim coach, is auditioning for a job, hoping his bosses will make him the permanent guy. Luke was promoted in July after Hugh Freeze was fired for using an escort service. Luke was a captain for Mississippi as a player, and his brother and father also played for the Rebels.
Mississippi is under a self-imposed bowl ban, so only pride is on the line. The season appeared to have bottomed out last month, when Patterson blew out his knee in a loss to LSU. But the Rebels have won three straight games to even their record at 5-5.
Luke told reporters this week: “I think there has always been this ‘well, this team doesn’t have anything to play for. They’re going to shut it down.’ To not do that and to keep playing says volumes about our players and our staff.”
Both A&M and Mississippi are coming off big offensive games. Rebels quarterback Jordan Ta’amu, the junior college transfer who replaced Patterson, led his team to scores on their first five drives in a 50-22 win over Louisiana-Lafayette.
Ta’amu leads the SEC in pass efficiency. The Rebels’ best receiver is A.J. Brown, who’s averaging 101.5 yards and 6.2 receptions per game. He’s the only receiver in the conference with more than 1,000 receiving yards. DaMarkus Lodge also has served as a big-play receiver, averaging more than 18 yards a catch.
Mississippi has the sort of skilled players who can pull off a win over a comparable program, especially on an emotional night devoted to the seniors.
“We have to go there and play well,” Sumlin said. “We have to build off of last week. We accomplished what we wanted to do offensively last week. We had to throw and catch and make plays. We were able to do what we wanted in the first half, which leads to confidence. We want to build on that this week.”
Texas A&M at Mississippi, 6 p.m., ESPN2, 1370