When Vanderbilt beat Ole Miss in November, it looked like only one of them would be playing into December. So what does it mean that both of them are?
When Vanderbilt sealed its come-from-behind win against Ole Miss with 52 seconds left in the game in November, it looked like the teams were headed in very different directions. Vanderbilt had made itself eligible for what was likely to be a second consecutive bowl bid, the only time that's happened since the Commodores were playing football. And with a win still needed to get the Rebels to bowl eligibility -- something that no one really expected when the season started -- Ole Miss would either need a win at LSU or a victory in the Egg Bowl.
Hugh Freeze's new team came close to the first, but didn't sew up its place in the postseason until the latter. So despite facing two teams that were at some point in the season at least in the Top 15, Ole Miss found the win it would need to get into a bowl for the first time in three years. So as teams like Tennessee and Missouri sit at home for the holidays, less likely contenders Vanderbilt and the Rebels will get the extra game.
Perhaps this will finally turn down some of the doubts that still surrounded James Franklin's tenure in Nashville before the season. If Vanderbilt can beat N.C. State in the Music City Bowl, Franklin will become the first head coach in 97 years to lead the Commodores to a nine-win season. Sure, the caveats of an expanded season and a continuous supply of bowl games apply, but doing anything for the first time in nearly a century is still pretty impressive.
The bowl visits provide a sort of validation in Oxford as well. The season doesn't prove that Hugh Freeze's brand of football will work or will allow the Rebels to overtake Alabama and LSU -- aside from winning the SEC West, there's no way that a coach can do that in one season. And while Ole Miss' offense was at times combustible, it wasn't overwhelming by conference standards, ranking fifth in passing yardage and total offense and seventh in rushing yardage. But the mere fact that the Rebels held their own against teams like Texas A&M and LSU gives Freeze something to work with on the recruiting trail and into next season.
And in the end, that's what will prove the true significance of two potentially historic seasons. If Franklin and Freeze can prove that this year represents a kind of new normal for each team and not just a momentary spark, then the conference calculus could become even more difficult to figure out each year. But even if the two programs level off relatively soon, this year will have been something special for both and for those watching; two underdogs making it into the postseason is part of what makes college football so great in the first place.