March 27, 2009
On the occasion of Ole Miss beginning its spring practice today, the Clarion-Ledger's David Brandt rehashes one of my favorite memes of the offseason: Ole Miss as trendy darkhorse. By my count, all but one of the most visible "pre-preseason" polls in January and February had the Rebels in the top-10, and the only one that didn't ranked them No. 11. Houston Nutt, of course, isn't buying it:
"The 'experts,' " said Nutt, making quotation marks with his hands for emphasis, "or whoever also picked them last or next to last (in the SEC in 2008). And then the same group picked them Top 5 this year. So that really means nothing."
Nutt is savvy, from a self-preservation standpoint, but maybe he knows his history, too. A top-10 season would put the '09 Rebels among the best teams in school history, and easily the best in the last 40 years -- better than the Romaro Miller-Deuce McAllister teams in the late nineties, better than the Eli Manning-led SEC West co-champs in 2003, even better than two of the three teams led by the locally sainted Archie Manning from 1968-70. In fact, Brandt is right when he says expectations in Oxford are higher than they've been since the heyday of Johnny Vaught in the sixties: The last time Ole Miss finished in the final Associated Press top-10 was in 1969, Archie's junior year, at the tail-end of two decades of dominance. I only have access to preseason polls dating back to 1993, but the "consensus" hasn't projected Ole Miss any higher than 18th in the last 16 years.
This for a team that, remember, was 0-8 in conference games in 2007, lost early games last year to Vanderbilt, Wake Forest and South Carolina and benefitted from the worst seasons in a decade by both LSU and Auburn. So, assuming those expectations hold through the summer, anything less than the best Ole Miss season in any of its players' lifetimes -- and most of their parents' -- will go down as a disappointment. Have fun out there, guys!