HOOVER, Ala. — Heading into the 2019 season, Ole Miss finally has something to play for.

All the right things were said in recent offseasons in Oxford, but the reality was the Rebels had nothing to play for other than pride as the team served a 2-year bowl ban following the messy divorce with former coach Hugh Freeze.

Rejoice, Rebels fans, as the black cloud hovering over Oxford has dissipated and the sun is finally shining on the Ole Miss program. The Rebels once again are eligible to play in the postseason and optimism is high following the offseason hires of offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez and defensive coordinator Mike MacIntyre.

In case you’ve forgotten, Matt Luke is uniquely qualified to lead Ole Miss out of the darkness that is a postseason ban. How’s that? He experienced it himself during his playing days in Oxford.

There is a sense of having something more to play for heading into the season.

“There is a different energy in the building,” Luke said during his appearance at 2019 SEC Media Days. “I think it is very refreshing to come in here and to talk about being able to talk about going back to the postseason. I think that’s a huge deal. Our players are excited, I think our fans are excited and just really looking forward to that opportunity.”

The goal for Luke and Ole Miss is simple: Get the team’s seniors who stuck around and labored through some dark times back to a bowl game. Just like Luke did when he played for the Rebels.

“I was fortunate enough to be on a team as a player, in 1997, to come off probation and send a senior class to a bowl game,” Luke said. “Seeing the looks on their faces. I’m excited about that challenge and looking forward to it.”

According to linebacker MoMo Sanogo, the team isn’t merely settling for a bowl trip, the Rebels are looking to make their return to the postseason special.

“Everybody is more focused, more excited for the season,” the Ole Miss defender said. “We are excited for that bowl game that everyone strives for at the end of the season. We are shooting for New Year’s 6 (bowl game), we are shooting for the stars.”

Alex Givens credited Luke for keeping the Rebels together during the bowl ban, but the offensive lineman admitted this offseason feels different given what’s now possible.

“For the past 2 or 3 years, coach Luke helped us play for more than ourselves, play for each other and something bigger than ourselves,” Givens said. “That helped out those years. Now that we have (the possibility) of a bowl game, it makes it even better motivation for us to improve.”