Ole Miss quarterback Jake Gibbs teamed up with an opportunistic Rebel defense to hold off a spirited Rice effort that seemed destined to torpedo the Rebels hopes of impressing voters in their quest for the 1960 National Championship.
The Sugar Bowl matchup was one of four that day that did not feature the usual cast of programs associated with what was the traditional lineup of New Year's Day games: Duke and Arkansas were matched up in the Cotton Bowl, Minnesota and Washington battled in the Rose Bowl, while Missouri and Navy were in Miami for the Orange Bowl.
Ole Miss, the runner-up to Syracuse in 1959, entered the 1960 season ranked second. The Rebels moved into the top spot after an opening 42-0 defeat of Houston in Houston (one of six consecutive road games to open their season), and held on to it for the first month. Syracuse, on the strength of a road win over #5 Kansas, vaulted past the Rebels in the first poll of October, but Ole Miss reclaimed the top spot the following week after Syracuse struggled, but surrendered it the following week to Iowa, despite a win over Tulane. Two weeks late, the Rebels suffered their only blemish on their record, a 6-6 tie with LSU in their first home game of the season....yes, their first home game was on October 29.
Minnesota, a team not ranked in the preseason AP poll, rose to the top spot in the polls by defeating top-ranked Iowa on the first weekend in November. Both wire services declared their national champions based upon regular season results only. Minnesota lost the following week, and Missouri moved into the top spot and needed only a win over Kansas in the season finale to claim the top prize. However the Jayhawks downed the Tigers 23-7, throwing the polling process into disarray.
Iowa had stood at #2 in the polls, and would have seemed primed to move to take the final poll and win the National Title. But the Hawkeyes were not destined to earn the Rose Bowl berth, since Minnesota, who was ranked 4th heading into the final week, held the conference tie breaker with their win over the Hawks. Per the Big Ten rule that only sent the conference champion to a bowl game--Iowa had no hope for a bowl game, and the pollsters seemed to adjust for this reality and the Gophers jumped the Hawkeyes in the final polls.
Ole Miss fans were equally upset to see that despite a 35-9 thrashing of Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl to end the season, their team was also jumped by the Gophers in the final wire service polls. It would be left to the results of the bowl games to impress the few polls that were not announced until after those games to give them a chance to lay claim to the top prize.
As it turned out, the contract between the Big Ten and the Rose Bowl had concluded prior to the 1960 season and there was at least a question as to if the Big Ten's representative was in fact bound to make a trip to Pasadena.
For Ole Miss, there was no contractual obligation in place to play in the Sugar Bowl. In fact, after having played in New Orleans on two of the last three New Year's Days, the Rebels were of a mind to look for a different destination.
The glimmer of hope that Minnesota and Ole Miss might be free to broker a showdown was nothing but a pipe dream, due to the larger societal issues that would soon become impossible to ignore any longer as a nation prepared to inaugurate John Kennedy as its President.
By state law of the time, Mississippi was forbidden to play against integrated college teams. Furthermore, legislators in Louisiana in 1956 passed a law forbidding sports competition between blacks and whites. As it turned out, the Big Ten decided that the relationship with the Rose Bowl was still in effect, and the Gophers were never placed in the position of confronting these regulations. The Louisiana laws made it implausible for the Sugar to pursue 4th ranked Navy, which featured Heisman trophy winner Joe Belino.
Rumors spread that the upstart Bluebonnet Bowl in Houston had signed a deal to bring Ole Miss to Houston, but Sugar Bowl officials, seeing no attractive alternative in the Southeastern Conference, ramped up their sales pitch and put an end to the Rebels' wanderlust.
To find an opponent for Mississippi, bowl officials first looked to Duke, which had risen up the ranks after upsetting Navy in October. But a November loss to North Carolina shifted their attention west to a season-ending matchup between the two teams battling for a share of the top spot in Southwest Conference, Baylor and Rice.
The Bears chose not to gamble on the results of the final game, accepting an offer to play in the Gator Bowl. That left the Owls as the object of the Sugar Bowl's affections, hoping for a win that would give the Owls a share of the SWC title to bring with them to New Orleans. However, Baylor pulled out a late 12-7 win over Rice, and the Sugar Bowl was left to promote a three-loss team in a showdown with a team looking to make a National Championship statement.
Despite the lackluster nature of the matchup on paper, the Owls provided the national television audience (with Lindsey Nelson and Red Grange calling the action on NBC) with a far more entertaining matchup than anyone could have expected.
The Owls out-gained the heavily favored Rebels, 281 yards to 186, but Ole Miss thwarted multiple Rice incursions into the Red Zone. Down only 7-0 heading to the third quarter, the Owls looked to be ready to knot the score when Butch Blume scored from three yards out. However, Max Webb missed the extra point. Ole Miss quarterback Jake Gibbs, who was an All America selection in both football and baseball and went on to play in the majors for the Yankees, gave Ole Miss some breathing room at the end with a three-yard run.
As it happened, the Rebels less-than-inspiring effort to impress the final poll voters did little to harm their chances, thanks to Washington's victory over top-ranked Minnesota in the Rose Bowl. Ole Miss was named National Champions by the Football Writers and several other postseason polls.
Rice had given an inspired accounting of itself on a national stage in one of the last great moments of the Jess Neely era of Owls football. Neely would lead the Owls back to one final bowl game less than a year later, when Rice met Kansas in the Bluebonnet Bowl in December of 1961, Rice's final bowl berth until 2006 when the Owls ripped off six wins down the stretch to earn a berth in the New Orleans Bowl.
Ironically, their practice facility in 2006 at Tulane University was located on the same ground where Sugar Bowl stadium, the site of their heroic 1961 effort against Ole Miss, had stood.