August 02, 2010
From the sounds of things, Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt was right there with the Southern writers who picked the Rebels to finish dead last in the SEC West two weeks ago, before controversial free agent quarterback Jeremiah Masoli fell into their laps over the last week. In fact, it was one of the reasons he decided to pursue Masoli in the first place:
"I could have not gone after him (Masoli), gone 6-6 this season and got ready to reload (for 2011)," said Nutt, whose team was picked at the recent SEC preseason media days to finish last in the SEC’s Western Division. "But when you think about your team, you have an obligation to them to do everything you can to put them in the best situation to win."
An inspiring message for the team: "Guys, we were going to kinda suck. But meet your new ticket back to the Cotton Bowl! Hallelujah!"
That may be asking a lot of a quarterback with less than a month's lead time before the opener to settle into his new surroundings and his role in a brand new system. But Masoli doesn't exactly fit the usual transfer profile of a guy in search of more playing time. He comes in with 20 career starts at Oregon, matching South Carolina's Stephen Garcia as the most battle-tested QB in the SEC, and about half of those efforts produced one outrageous number or another from the Ducks' light-speed spread option attack once it was rolling.
In 2008, Masoli led 55, 65 and 42-point outbursts to close the season against Arizona, Oregon State (ruining the Beavers' streaky run to the Rose Bowl) and Oklahoma State. After another slow start last year, Oregon exploded again for 42 points against Cal in the Pac-10 opener and proceeded to score at least 37 in each of Masoli's next seven starts (he sat out a 24-10 win at UCLA). That run included the 47-point, 613-yard disemboweling of USC on Halloween, the night USC officially ceased to be USC as the rest of the Pac-10 had known it for the last eight years. In their only conference loss, the Duck offense still rang up six touchdowns on 570 yards in a wild, 50-42 loss at Stanford.
There's not much recent precedent for those kinds of numbers in the SEC, the least offensively-oriented of the major conferences last year. But there is precedent for decent defenses bottling up Masoli, whose track record tends to be all-or-nothing. Against the two BCS-bound defenses the Ducks faced in '09, Boise State to kick off the schedule and Ohio State to close it in the Rose Bowl, the result was largely nothing. And Masoli has never put much of a scare into respectable defenses (here, we'll define "respectable" as "among the top half of the country") with his arm – compared with other SEC quarterbacks we have a little data on, Masoli's niche at Ole Miss is clearly going to be as "the scrambler":
As Greg McElroy proved yet again, the best niche is always to be the guy with the Heisman-winning running back and the nation's best defense to bail you out when the offense comes up empty. (See the wholesale collapse of the Alabama passing game in October, including a three-game stretch in which the Tide's only offensive touchdowns came on a long run by Mark Ingram against Ole Miss and an all-Ingram drive against South Carolina with the workhorse cutting out the middle man on direct snaps from the shotgun.)
Obviously, Masoli didn't have the luxury of a first-rate defense at Oregon, and he doesn't have the killer D or the proven playmaker to handle most of the carries at Ole Miss; he also won't have spread option guru Chip Kelly pulling the strings. Prolific all-purpose dervish Dexter McCluster would have been a perfect complement alongside Masoli in the various iterations of the read option, if he had another year of eligibility. As it stands, the Rebels don't have any obvious approximation of McCluster or LaMichael James, the similarly diminutive speedster whose emergence last year helped send Oregon's attack into overdrive.
The specter of transition to face "SEC Defenses" is a meaningless bogeyman – among the SEC defenses Masoli will face if he wins the starting job this fall are Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Arkansas, Auburn and Mississippi State, none of which are about to scare anyone based on last year's returns and subsequent expectations for this year. (Rebuilding Tennessee may belong in that group as well, accounting for three-fourths of the conference schedule.) But Masoli isn't very likely to scare them with his arm, either. No matter where he plays, if the defense can hold its own in the front seven and doesn't respect Masoli's ability to get the ball downfield every so often, the absence of a reliable second running threat could easily spell the same doom Ole Miss was already half-expecting before Masoli came aboard.
But how much respect will defenses have for the guy Masoli is trying to replace, Nathan Stanley, who isn't particularly known for his arm or wheels? As bleak as the outlook was for the position when the media cast those last-place ballots, at least Masoli gives the Rebels a fighting chance to tap into some of that old Oregon dynamite.
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Hat tip: Richie.
Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.