The Rebels finished the year 6-6 overall and 3-5 in Southeastern Conference games, becoming bowl eligible with a 41-24 win in their final regular season game against in-state rival Mississippi State.
“It's an exciting time,” Ole Miss athletics director Ross Bjork said. “We’re excited to be playing, whether it’s Birmingham or Alaska. We know Rebel nation will respond accordingly and pack out the stadium.”
The BBVA Compass Bowl, held at Legions Field in Birmingham, Ala., is set for Jan. 5 at 12 p.m. CST, according to the bowl’s official site. Ole Miss will face Pittsburgh, who was 6-6 overall and 3-4 in Big East play this season.
“Obviously excited, in year one, to be going to a bowl game,” Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze said. “I think the main thing I’d like to express is how excited I am for our fans and our young men, especially our seniors, who get to go out experiencing 60 more minutes of football this year.”
The Panthers, like Ole Miss, had a handful of near-miss losses, including a three-overtime loss to No. 1 Notre Dame. The Irish and SEC winner and BCS No. 2 Alabama will meet for a BCS national championship two days after the conclusion of the Compass Bowl.
Pittsburgh finished the regular season with back-to-back runaway wins. The Panthers upended Rutgers, 27-6, before concluding the regular season with a 27-3 win against USF. Pittsburgh appeared in each of the last two Compass Bowls, most recently losing to SMU, 28-6, in January of this year.
Ole Miss was in contention for the Compass Bowl, as well as the Music City Bowl in Nashville, Tenn., and the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Tenn. “Ole Miss is a team people want in their bowl game,” Bjork said.
However, on selection Sunday, the Music City Bowl opted for hometown Vanderbilt. The Commodores were 8-4 in 2012, with a one-point win over Ole Miss in Oxford.
Had the Gator Bowl selected Vanderbilt instead of Mississippi State, Ole Miss was in better position for a possible Music City Bowl invite.
But Northwestern, an early-season opponent of Vanderbilt, was taken by the Gator, pushing the Commodores to the Music City and sending Mississippi State to Jacksonville. The Compass Bowl held priority over the Liberty.
“As we win more games in the future, we're going to be even more attractive as the program grows,” Bjork said.
Freeze engineered a four-win turnaround in his first season in Oxford, turning a 2-10 team in 2011 into a bowl-eligible group with wins over, among others, Arkansas, Auburn and Mississippi State. Ole Miss lost to Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and LSU by a combined seven points.
“I think it accelerates our journey, our process,” Freeze said of the bowl selection. “We’re one of the teams still playing. In our case, to come off the last two seasons of only having limited wins, I think it certainly expedites our message. We’re going to capitalize on it and build on this momentum that it’s caused.”
Freeze said the momentum of the 2012 season, bowl appearance included, has helped in recruiting. Ole Miss currently has a top-25 recruiting class, according to Scout.com.
“I think it kind of validates the process; that the journey we’re on is on the right track,” Freeze said. “The excitement level around our program seems to be catching on among the recruits and their families.”
Ole Miss will be making its 34th bowl appearance in school history in Birmingham. Ole Miss has 21 bowl wins to its credit, with four-straight bowl wins. The Rebels won back-to-back Cotton Bowls in 2009 and 2010. Ole Miss ranks 13th nationally in all-time bowl wins.
This will be the Rebels' first appearance in the Compass Bowl, established in 2006.
Bjork said Ole Miss committed to selling 10,000 tickets for the Compass Bowl. However, he and Freeze have their sights set on record-breaking attendance numbers. The record is north of 42,600.
“We’re going to push for a stadium record attendance,” Bjork said. “I think we can break (the record). I think our fans are hungry. We can hit a home run and break an attendance record for the Compass Bowl.”
“I have no doubt that our people are going to show up,” Freeze said. “I really believe that the hunger and the excitement that our kids have provided our fans, they’ve been tremendous all year. Our players are going to give them tremendous effort. They’re a part of this process and journey, and have been a major role in our success.”
Bjork reworking Freeze's contract:
Amidst the bowl discussion, Bjork said he has been in contact with Jimmy Sexton, who represents Freeze, on reworking Freeze's contract.
A new deal could be ironed out this week.
“In this business, you’ve got to be proactive. It’s very, very competitive,” Bjork said. “The landscape shifts pretty much by the hour. We’ve been proactive late here in the season. We’re talking to coach and his representative.
“I think we’ll have something ironed out with a new structure here in the coming days. And then you look at the assistant coaches as well. Our job is to continue to make an investment in football here. We’re in the SEC, the national leader in college football. We’ve got to grow the program.”
Freeze praised Bjork for being proactive. The first-year Ole Miss A.D. initiated the reworking of strength and conditioning coach Paul Jackson's contract mid-season.
“Ross has demonstrated to me throughout this year that he gets what we’re trying to accomplish,” Freeze said. “He’s aggressive and he’s on top of his stuff and very, very proactive in asking if I need something to take care of for people. He helped me rework Paul Jackson’s contract. He initiated that, I didn’t.
“For our A.D. to seek me out for that tells me that he gets it. He and Jimmy have talked. Jimmy’s been very impressed with the fact that Ross is proactive in all these things. It makes me feel very good.”
As for details towards a new deal, Freeze is leaving it to Bjork and Sexton. Freeze is currently on the road recruiting.
“I have not one time said I needed anything,” he said. “If they decide to do that for me and my staff, that’s great. I’m very indebted to have the job I have, and I’m looking forward to continuing to build. The last thing I really want to do is start acting like I deserve something. Whatever they decide, I’m going to be OK with it.”