July 23, 2010
Part of the Doc's SEC Week.
This time last year, Ole Miss was revving up for what was supposed to be its best season in 40 years. Coming off a stunning 9-4 campaign capped by a Cotton Bowl upset over Texas Tech in 2008, the Rebels were tagged early as serious contenders to win the SEC West for the first time since the league split into the division format in 1992.
Today, again coming off a 9-4 season capped by a Cotton Bowl win over the Big 12 South, Ole Miss was picked by the conference media today to finish dead last in the West – behind Auburn, with its 5-11 record in SEC games the last two years, behind the same Arkansas and LSU outfits the Rebels have beaten two years in a row, even behind Mississippi State. In 12 months, the "Rebel revival" bandwagon has stalled and finally been abandoned somewhere along the side of a back road somewhere between Oxford and Atlanta.
It lost some of that momentum over the course of last year, in sluggish-looking losses to underdogs South Carolina, Auburn and Mississippi State. But the rest apparently departed in January with quarterback Jevan Snead, electric all-purpose dynamo Dexter McCluster and league-leading receiver Shay Hodge, not to mention the majority of the offensive line. (It didn't help that up-and-coming receiver Patrick Patterson was booted from the team earlier this month, either.) As quickly as they rose from the ashes of the Ed Orgeron era over the last month of Houston Nutt's triumphant '08 debut, so shall they return with equal haste.
Or so say the beat writers, anyway, extending very little quarter to the sustainability of Nutt's rebuilding job. They've seen this before, after all, when Eli Manning's exit after a banner 10-3 finish in 2003 was immediately followed by a 4-7 slide in 2004 that cost coach David Cutcliffe his job. If they're right this time, it will be an illuminating example of just how tenuous such distinctions can be in this conference: In effect, they're guessing the only difference between the bottom-dwelling sad sacks of the Orgeron years and a top-25 mainstay capable of taking back-to-back January bowl games is a decent set of skill players – even if the difference-making quarterback in that equation happens to lead the nation in interceptions on his way out. As the NFL will tell you, Snead was no Eli Manning.
Rebel fans probably feel the foundation is a little more solid than that, especially on defense, where they've finished in the top 20 nationally in total and scoring D each of the last two years. With All-SEC types Jerrell Powe and Kentrell Locket back on the line, the front seven is well-equipped to uphold its end of the bargain. Between workhorse Brandon Bolden, deep threat Markeith Summers and ace JUCO transfer Randall Mackey – a possible starter at quarterback or receiver, or somewhere in between – the offense isn't exactly scraping the bottom of the barrel, either. And going back to his years at Arkansas, Nutt's teams have always been at their most dangerous when the least is expected of them.
This will be the year to make good on that reputation and reestablish the program's perennial presence in the postseason, at minimum. But it may be that Ole Miss is still just Ole Miss as it's existed for most of the last four decades: Always on the brink of a breakthrough when a McAllister, Manning or McCluster finds his way onto the field, and always subject to having the rug pulled out as soon as they're gone.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.