Houston Nutt knew exactly what he was getting last summer when he staked Ole Miss' season (not to mention his own reputation) on acquiring the talents of Oregon refugee Jeremiah Masoli: Instead of the unheralded, inexperienced Nathan Stanley, the Rebels would the deploying the guy who led the Ducks to at least 37 points in eight of nine Pac-10 games in 2009, their first outright conference championship since 2001 and their first Rose Bowl since 1995.
They were also getting a guy who'd earned his stripes in a system that seems to succeed regardless of who's in the shotgun, and then earned his ticket out of Eugene for a pair of arrests in a five-month span. Not the kind of gamble you usually take for a 1-4 start in the SEC with home losses to Jacksonville State and Vanderbilt.
Of course, without the gamble, it might be worse. And short of Cameron Newton, not many transfers are going to reveal themselves as messiahs opposite the league's worst defense. But Masoli has aided abetted the Rebels' season of woe in quality and quantity: He split time with Stanley in the opening-day humiliation against JSU, but managed to throw the interception that sparked a 21-point Gamecock rally in the fourth quarter to force overtime; he ran for 104 yards but served up two interceptions with no touchdowns in the humiliation against Vanderbilt two weeks later; three weeks after that, he completed 18 of 40 passes for a paltry 110 yards in a 23-10 loss at Alabama, the defense's best SEC effort by far. Tennessee's Matt Simms has a better pass efficiency rating on a worse team, and he was just benched in favor of a true freshman.
Masoli isn't headed for that fate. He's not exactly surrounded by elite playmakers, but he is the second-leading rusher in a top-20 ground attack that averages more than 400 yards and 31 points per game. He threw three touchdown passes and added another as a runner in a shootout win over Kentucky. He turned in three more TD strikes to go along with 425 total yards (327 passing, 98 rushing) at Arkansas, the best number in the SEC this year, settling in behind Archie Manning's myth-making, 540-yard performance against Alabama in 1969 as the second-best single-game tally in school history.
Still – like Manning 41 years ago – Ole Miss lost, 38-24. Amid the flashes of potential, the bottom line is that the Rebels are one defeat in their last three conference games from a last-place finish in the most competitive division in the country, and two losses from missing a bowl game altogether, on the heels of back-to-back 8-4 campaigns that ended with Cotton Bowl victories in Nutt's first two seasons. Masoli wasn't imported for his potential; he was a one-year stopgap to keep the bottom from falling out for a team picked at the bottom of the division by conference media just before his arrival. It's probably too late to avoid that fate, but with wins over Louisiana-Lafayette and Tennessee the next two weeks, there's still a chance to salvage a .500 season and a bowl game with an upset over LSU or streaking Mississippi State, which hasn't won in Oxford in more than a decade.
Masoli is already an afterthought at Oregon, where Chip Kelly's spread option Death Star has hit a whole new dimension of warp speed without him. If he's going to make any kind of mark at Ole Miss except as an overhyped footnote, he's only got another month to do it.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.