August 25, 2009
Part of the Doc's SEC Week.
As often as I've invoked the Ole Miss bandwagon throughout the offseason -- usually to express some skepticism at the near-consensus projecting the Rebels' best season in 40 years -- I haven't addressed them at all substantively. No good popping a perfectly decent bubble of cynicism before its time, you know.
But as far as I can tell, the vast ocean of Rebel love that's filled over the last six months hinges on most or all of the following assumptions coming true:
• Jevan Snead is for real. Snead was about as guru-approved as they come out of high school -- he rejected Oklahoma and Texas to commit to Florida, later spurning the Gators for Mack Brown when Tim "He's a Linebacker" Tebow signed up -- and was Ole Miss' unquestioned starter from the day he signed his transfer papers to escape the lengthening shadow of Colt McCoy. But the first two-thirds of his debut season weren't exactly the stuff of legends: Going into November, he was only completing around half his passes and had thrown almost as many interceptions (11) as touchdowns (12), including four picks with no touchdowns in the inexcusable loss to Vanderbilt. Excluding a gimme against Samford, the Rebels were averaging a respectable 26 points through the first eight.
Down the stretch, though, the kid was unconscious: During the four-game November winning streak and the bowl win over Texas Tech, Snead completed two-thirds of his passes and put up 14 touchdowns to two picks; his pass efficiency rating over the last four games was a shade over 200 and the scoring average jumped by almost three touchdowns per game.
Verdict: True. Snead didn't flash much of his alleged athleticism as a scrambler, but his arm was as-advertised and he finished the year on at least as hot a streak as Tebow, McCoy and Sam Bradford once he picked up the offense. With his projections and subsequent production, it's not a stretch to put him in that category, or to assume he can eventually surpass Eli Manning as the contemporary gold standard for Ole Miss passers. (As a native Mississippian, however, I say with complete confidence that Archie will never be touched in popular memory. Trust me.)
• Michael Oher and Peria Jerry are not crippling losses. Departing linemen get short shrift because nobody notices that much when they're around, but Oher's and Jerry's impact is fairly easy to gauge: Not only were both first-team All-SEC as seniors (a repeat performance for Oher), but they were the first Ole Miss teammates ever to go in the first round of the draft in the same year, an indication of just how thoroughly they controlled their respective lines of scrimmage. Into those considerable voids step a couple of relatively obscure guys, Bradley Sowell on offense and Lawon Scott on defense, with little playing time under their belts and even less hype as recruits; needless to say, neither is projected as All-SEC or high draft material.
Verdict: Likely busted in Oher's case, but plausible for Jerry under certain conditions -- namely, that former five-star man-mountain/running recruiting joke Jerrell Powe, possibly the most persistent recruit ever to emerge from the deepest depths of academic purgatory, finally lives up to the hype that underpinned his three-year eligibility saga. Powe won't generate the pass rush Jerry did, but he has Terrence Cody potential as an immovable boulder in the middle of the line, if he can get on the field and stay there.
• The defense will maintain its dramatic improvement from the Orgeron debacles. "Improvement" may be something of an understatement, actually, especially in the run defense:
The vast improvement in run defense brings us back to Jerry's absence in the middle and the pressing need to fill that gap, but otherwise, everyone is just a year older and (presumably) better -- the only other spot hit hard by attrition is strong safety in the absence of Jamarca Sanford.
Verdict: Highly plausible, especially with pass rush specialist Greg Hardy back at full speed after being hit by injuries and distracted by butterflies or something for a good part of last year; his presence was instrumental in the win over Florida (two sacks and another tackle for loss) and in the late-season surge, when he returned from a two-game absence for five sacks in the last four games. If the x-factors on the line, Hardy and Powe, consistently play to their potential, the defense can be very, very good. But both (especially Powe) are also at risk to fall off the face of the earth for long stretches.
• The overall talent level is higher than it's been in years. Compared to the rest of the SEC, recruiting hauls have been eerily consistent: Rivals has ranked the Rebels' incoming classes eighth, ninth, sixth, eighth, seventh and eighth since 2004. And as the Orgeron years proved, this same group is at least as capable of bottoming out as it is of breaking through at the top. Athletically, by SEC standards, it's still a very middle-of-the-pack group overall.
Verdict: Busted, except in a couple key areas: a) As a transfer, Snead is a program-changing upgrade that doesn't show up in recruiting rankings; and b) With a competent trigger man, the receivers have added a consistent big-play threat that never existed in the Orgeron years, which Shay Hodge and Dexter McCluster should continue even in the absence of deep threat Mike Wallace. More than anything, depth is an issue across the board -- there is no margin for error in case of injuries.
• They've proven they can beat elite teams. The win over Florida -- in which the Rebels were outgained by 118 yards and took advantage of three fumbles -- is less persuasive along these lines than the later wins over LSU and Texas Tech, which were much more thorough, non-flukey whippings that completely flipped the program's reputation. And yes, they beat one of the most dominant teams of the decade, not a bad Exhibit A.
The flip side of this, though -- coinciding with the argument about the overall talent level -- is last year's early losses to Vanderbilt, Wake Forest and South Carolina, which puts the Rebels firmly in the "Any Given Saturday" camp in both directions.
Verdict: True, but with a caveat that they have not proven they have the consistency to handle the many solid-to-good outfits -- South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Arkansas, Auburn, Tennessee -- that litter the schedule, especially when three of those five games are on the road.
That consistency is the difference between a respectable bowl game and a division title with the BCS at stake, and it's the one quality this team demonstrably lacked last year. Of all the possible doubts about the Rebels' credentials, this is the question at the top: If they're able to rediscover last year's late peak, how long will they be able to sustain it?