Fifty years ago, Ole Miss was No. 1 in the nation -- until Kentucky showed up
Heading into its home game Saturday against Memphis, this year's Ole Miss squad is 3-0, having beaten Boise State, Vanderbilt and Louisiana-Lafayette by a combined score of 132-31. The Rebels are 10th in the latest AP poll.
Impressive by any stretch -- but nothing compared to the Rebels of the late 1950s and early 60s.
The Ole Miss Rebels of that era were, to say the least, impressive.
They lay claim to three national championships, though none of those were deemed official. Ole Miss was awarded the 1959 Dunkel System national crown, the 1960 Football Writers Association of America, Dunkel System and Williamson System national championships, and the 1962 Litkenhous Ratings national title.
The 1959 team was a curious lot. It finished 10-1 (5-1 in the SEC, which was good enough for second in the conference behind 7-0 Georgia) despite giving up just 21 points all season. It won that year's Sugar Bowl, shutting out third-ranked Alabama 21-0 to finish the season ranked No. 2 behind national champion Syracuse, which went 11-0 and won the Cotton Bowl 23-14 against Texas.
The '59 Rebels, despite not winning their own conference that season, were named the SEC's team of the decade for the 1950s. The team was also named as third best from 1956-95 by Sagarin.
Of course, much has been written and documented about the 1962 Ole Miss team, which went unbeaten while the school was embroiled in controversy as James Meredith, helped by the United States government, was attempting to become the school's first African-American student. Meredith was admitted, a watershed moment not only for the school, but also for the American civil rights movement.
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Back then, two generations ago, hardly anybody defeated Ole Miss at home; from 1952-'64, the Rebels went 36-1-1 on its home turf.
Despite losing the 1964 Sugar Bowl 12-7 to Alabama, the Rebels entered the 1964 season as the AP preseason No. 1. Despite all the success the team had enjoyed up to that point, that preseason No. 1 ranking was the first time the Rebels were the top team in the country since 1961.
And up to now, it was the last time they were the top team in the country.
The Rebels lost to Kentucky 27-21 on Sept. 26, 1964, in Oxford, Mississippi, essentially ending the run of good fortune for the Rebels.
Ole Miss had no answer for Kentucky wide receiver Nick Kestner, who caught a total of nine passes for a then-school record 185 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Wildcats back from a pair of second-half deficits for the victory. Kestner would finish the 1964 season with 42 receptions, also a school record at the time.
How damaging was the loss? It was the only highlight of the seven-year Charlie Bradshaw era at Kentucky, a stretch that saw the Wildcats go 25-41-4.
The Rebels went from top-ranked to not ranked after the loss. In fact, it would be the last time they would be ranked at all until the week of Oct. 7, 1968, when they were ranked 13th after a 3-0 start. They'd be ranked for the following two weeks, then, after a 29-7 loss to Houston, the Rebels disappeared again until the 1969 preseason poll.
John Vaught remained the head coach at Ole Miss through the 1970 season and he was brought back for one more year in 1973. After the loss to Kentucky, the 1964 Rebels finished 5-5-1. Vaught's high point after the loss would be the 1969 season, when his Rebels went 8-3 and again won the Sugar Bowl, handing Arkansas its only loss of that season, 27-22.
They haven't reached the top three in the AP poll since the loss. In fact, the closest they've gotten is fourth, twice, each for one week's time, the week of Oct. 12, 1970, and again the week of Sept. 20, 2009.
Will this season's team burst through that glass ceiling? Only time will tell.