VIDEO: No. 16 Ole Miss practices at Superdome
NEW ORLEANS -- Following No. 16 Ole Miss' final full practice on Wednesday, the players who met with the media didn't sugar coat what's at stake in Friday's Sugar Bowl against No. 13 Oklahoma State.
"We all know how embarrassing last year was in a New Years Six bowl," sophomore running back Jordan Wilkins said. "We worked really hard to get to this."
A year ago the Rebels were throttled by a motivated TCU crew in the 42-3 Peach Bowl. The Horned Frogs, feeling snubbed from the first College Football Playoff field, were out to prove a point and did by scoring 14 points in each of the first three quarters while Ole Miss only mustered a field goal in the final frame.
"Coach (Hugh) Freeze instills it into us every day. He brings up last year," junior receiver Quincy Adeboyejo said. "It was embarrassing. Everybody knows that and we're doing everything we can to make sure nothing like that even gets close to happening."
On Tuesday, the team spent a portion of the day at the World War II Museum in downtown New Orleans. Senior offensive lineman Justin Bell said he took the trip to heart and thinks the team can actually apply what they learned from the veterans on Friday.
"We feel like we can only learn from last year. You have to learn from the past -- that ties into the World War II Museum," he said. "We have to learn from the past and that's what we did. We took what we can gain from it, worked on our weaknesses and now we have to put our product on the field come Friday."
Bell believes the team's focus and preparation for the Cowboys (10-2 overall, 7-2 Big 12) has been much improved.
"To be honest, I feel like the whole process felt different," he said. "I feel like we got more work in this time around and we're more focused this time around. I feel like we had more enthusiasm and are fresher this year around."
Freeze told reporters Thursday he tweaked Ole Miss' schedule and how the Rebels (9-3, 6-2 SEC) approached practices once in New Orleans to keep their edge.
"You can learn from last year's disappointments, and I think I practiced differently," he said. "We were more difficult and tackled more, but mainly it was more than just a schedule of making sure it's consistent from day to day, makes sense."
Without Robert Nkemdiche, who is suspended for Friday's 7:30 p.m. game on ESPN, several Rebels will see drastically increased roles along Ole Miss' line.
Nkemdiche, still projected by many as a top NFL draft pick despite recent off-the-field issues, demanded double teams from opponents, opening up opportunities for teammates.
Now, junior D.J. Jones and freshman Breeland Speaks will be relied upon to disrupt the Cowboys' offense.
"I've been working to get more in shape from what I was. Just taking over from where he was," said Jones, a 324-pound JUCO transfer who registered 35 tackles and three sacks this season. "I've come a long way from Week 1. The first five weeks, I was feeling around. When we got into SEC play I feel like I made a name for myself and did what I had to do."
Added Speaks, who made 30 tackles with one sack: "I'm always prepared. Regardless of the situation, I'll always be ready."
With Nkemdiche already announcing his intention to enter the NFL draft early, Speaks said he feels like Friday will be an opportunity to showcase what he can do.
"I just look at it as this is going to be the D-line next year, so lets see what I can do and what we can do without 5," he said.