Texas A&M’s football season starts or ends Saturday in Oxford, Mississippi.
The Aggies will have a realistic chance of winning eight or nine games this season if they beat the Ole Miss Rebels. But if A&M loses at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, all hope for a good season will be gone.
The idea that Ole Miss is a must-win game isn’t coach speak. It’s reality. A&M’s best victory is over Arkansas, a team riding a 14-game losing streak in Southeastern Conference play. Those who believe A&M is better than its 3-3 record base it on competitive losses to top-ranked teams Clemson and Alabama and eighth-ranked Auburn. That’s plausible if A&M starts beating teams it should.
And that makes Ole Miss a litmus test. The 3-4 Rebels are about as average as it gets and have a resume best described as A&M Light highlighted by one-score losses to Memphis and California. Memphis won its first five games to climb into the national rankings, and Cal improved to 4-0 and climbed to No. 15 in the Associated Press with its win over Ole Miss.
Last week, the Rebels lost 38-27 at Missouri, which won its fifth straight to crack the Top 25. Ole Miss even had positives in a 59-31 loss at Alabama, holding a 10-7 lead after the first quarter and rushing for 279 yards. Ole Miss’ best victory is a 31-17 win over Arkansas. So based on just Arkansas, the Rebels should be a 10-point favorite Saturday.
Ole Miss isn’t a pushover, but it is a team A&M should beat. That would put A&M in position to have a four-game winning streak because the following three games will be against Mississippi State, Texas-San Antonio and South Carolina at Kyle Field. South Carolina, coming off a double-overtime victory at third-ranked Georgia, is by far the best of those teams. Beating South Carolina for a four-game winning streak would give the Aggies confidence heading into back-to-back road games at Georgia and LSU where a victory then would help define the season. The chances of A&M winning in either Athens, Georgia, or Baton Rouge, Louisiana, seem slim right now, but a lot can happen in a month.
After laying an egg at home against South Carolina, Georgia now is a loss away from potentially not making a New Year’s Six Bowl. The Bulldogs actually could lose two more considering they play Florida, Missouri and Auburn. So Georgia could be in the tank by the time it plays A&M.
LSU has become a national championship contender, but what happens if record-setting quarterback Joe Burrow twists an ankle? We’re at the point where a play or game can define a season for any program good or bad, and that includes the Tigers and their new-found passing game.
If A&M loses to Ole Miss, its chances of becoming bowl-eligible would be about 55/45. If this team can’t beat Ole Miss, what chance would it have at Georgia or LSU? A&M’s season then likely would boil down to beating Mississippi State and South Carolina to possibly make the Belk Bowl or Independence Bowl.
The Aggies haven’t had four losses in a season before the end of October since 2008. How thrilling would that 11 a.m. kick next week against Mississippi State be coming off a loss?
You also have to factor in Saturday matchup as a big game for Ole Miss, which couldn’t go to a bowl the last two seasons because of NCAA sanctions. The Rebels need to win three of their last five games to become bowl-eligible. The easiest route is beating two sets of Aggies — A&M on Saturday and New Mexico State on Nov. 9 — and rival Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl on Nov. 26.
In essence, Saturday’s contest is a bowl game for the Rebels. A&M can expect Ole Miss’ best, which happens in Oxford where the Aggies are 3-1 by the skin of their teeth, the margins of victory being by field goals twice and a touchdown in their last trip in 2017.
The Aggies don’t necessarily have to play their best, but they do have to win or else this season will feel like it over for all intents and purposes.