Debriefing: Even in rough-and-tumble SEC West, Ole Miss carries its weight

The least you should know about the 2011 Rebels. Part of SEC Week.

Losing the state? Driving into Mississippi from Louisiana, it's hard not to notice the billboard that reads "Welcome to our State" with Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen's face on it. It's irked the Ole Miss contingent, but it signifies a shift in the swagger among the state's schools.

For the past two seasons, Ole Miss has watched MSU win the head-to-head battle, and while last year was the first time since 2007 the Bulldogs finished with the better record than the Rebels, it has put coach Houston Nutt squarely on the hot seat.

"It's all about winning," Nutt said during SEC media days. "And the reason they're loud right now is they've won the last two years. But, again, my energy is going to be on what's going to help us win."

But it's still a question whether that winning is going to come sooner rather than later? Ole Miss, coming off a 4-8 season that featured only one conference win, returns nine players, including just three on defense. It has an inexperienced quarterback, a young defensive line and not a lot of momentum after severely underachieving a year ago. If the Rebels can manage to defeat Southern Illinois, the lone FCS school on the schedule after Ole Miss lost to FCS Jacksonville State a year ago, the season might be considered a success.

Frontin'. If there's one thing Ole Miss faithful can be excited about, it's the deep and talented offensive line. Led by tackles Bradley Sowell and Bobby Massie, who have a combined 41 starts, the line allowed the fewest sacks in the SEC a year ago. Alex Washington, A.J. Hawkins and possibly Arkansas transfer Matt Hall will fill out the trench. That's good news for running back Brandon Bolden, who rushed for 976 yards and 14 touchdowns. Bolden was the fifth-best rusher in the SEC a year ago and comes into this fall the second-best behind South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore. And the Rebels can take comfort in knowing that the team's second- and third-best tailbacks, Jeff Scott and Enrique Davis, are also back as insurance policies.{YSP:MORE}

Welcome back Kentrell. With just three returning starters on defense and minus impact players such as defensive tackles Jerrell Powe and Ted Laurent, and sack-leader D.J. Shackleford, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the spring, there isn't much to build around.

And there isn't much to build on. The Rebels ranked 11th in the SEC in total defense and dead last in scoring, allowing 35.2 points per game. The glimmer of hope might come from defensive end Kentrell Lockett, who was granted a sixth season after missing most of last year with a knee injury and true freshman C.J. Johnson, the state's best recruit, who should earn immediate playing time at middle linebacker especially with Shackleford out.

The Masoli hype machine stalled: Jeremiah Masoli didn't quite live up to the hype that followed him from Oregon last summer: The passing offense ranked 82nd nationally with less than 200 yards per game, and 81st in pass efficiency. Now the Rebels look toward the future with another pair of transfers, former juco star Randall Mackey and West Virginia refugee Barry Brunetti. While neither player has looked especially sharp in fall camp, Brunetti seems to have the inside track to becoming the third consecutive transfer — following Masoli and Jevan Snead — to run the Ole Miss offense. Whoever earns the job, at least he'll have a deep receiving corps, with five guys that could all make an impact, including junior Melvin Harris and four incoming targets who were rated as four-star recruits by Rivals.

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