Breeland Speaks smiled as he recalled his first two meetings with Alabama.
The defensive lineman was a freshman at Ole Miss for the 2014 upset of the No. 1 Crimson Tide. As a sophomore, he was on the sideline for the wacky 43-37 takedown of No. 2 Alabama in Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Even the 2016 loss was entertaining with both teams fighting back from huge holes in a 48-43 Alabama win. Last September’s rivalry renewal was unlike the others, however.
“It felt like they had to get revenge on us,” Speaks said last week at the NFL combine in Indianapolis. “I was 2-2 against Alabama. Up until last year I was 2-1. They felt like they needed revenge and they got it.”
That came in the form of a 66-3 final score. It was Alabama’s highest point total since 1979 and for the first time since 2013, Ole Miss couldn’t keep pace. This was a Rebel program reeling from the ongoing NCAA scandal and the abrupt July firing of coach Hugh Freeze.
Much of the talent that led the Rebels in the three classics with the Tide were nowhere near Tuscaloosa on Sept. 30, 2017.
“We had a lot of young people out there, young guys on the field,” said Ole Miss running back Jordan Wilkins. “It was tough at the time because we felt like we had the talent to play with them. Had turnovers. They got on us early and I think guys were a little shell shocked.
Alabama scored touchdowns on four straight drives after opening with a punt. The Rebels punted on three of their first drives with an Pick-6 interception coming on the other.
The Tide led 21-3 after the first quarter and 38-3 at halftime.
“They punched us in the mouth early but we tried to respond,” Wilkins said. “Obviously, we were struggling here and there. The defense was struggling. The offense was struggling and we just kept turning the ball over. It was a tough loss.”
The loss left Ole Miss 2-2 in the second of what became a three-game losing streak. Auburn delivered a 44-23 blow the following week for an Ole Miss team that bottomed out at 3-5 before winning three of four to close the season 6-6.
“We had a lot of growing up to do,” former Ole Miss offensive lineman Rod Taylor said at the combine. “The year before that and the year before that, we had some guys. We were ready to play. Every team had to start over.”
Wilkins had the only game to remember for the Rebels. His 12 carries went for 101 yards — a rare triple digit rushing total allowed by the Tide defense. He had a long of 44 yards and hurdled Alabama safety Hootie Jones on a 21-yard play when it was just 14-0.
Reuben Foster was the best defender he remembers facing in the Alabama games. His sideline to sideline speed still stands out a year after Foster played his final game for the Tide.
Like Speaks, Wilkins was around for the two wins over Alabama. He also noted the Rebels suffered in the weeks after winning those games. The wins took an emotional toll on the team, he said.
He too can smile recalling those two September upsets of the Crimson Tide.
“Obviously, they bring the best out of us because we know we’re going against a great opponent, Wilkins said. “Like I said, we wanted to thrive in those games. We knew what we were up against.”