August 28, 2009
Defining the most interesting matchups of the season, as part of the Doc's SEC Week.
The rest of the nation can brace itself now, because Oct. 10 is going to belong to our future SEC overlords noon to night-- Georgia will be at Tennessee that morning and Florida at LSU in one of the season's obvious blockbusters that evening, with no earth-shaking game in other conference -- but no team anywhere will have a more far-reaching stake in that date than Ole Miss. The Rebels get Alabama in Oxford in the afternoon CBS slot, and with all respects to the de facto SEC West championship game against LSU in 2003, it will be the biggest game on that campus in 40 years.
That is, assuming the Rebels start 4-0, probably a dangerous assumption with trips to South Carolina and Vanderbilt, both of which won last year in Oxford, preceding the Tide. But to put a 4-0 start in historical perspective: If it gets there, Ole Miss will be ranked in the top 10 in both major polls in October for the first time since ... well, since well before I'm able to track the weekly fluctuations of the polls. The Rebels haven't finished in the top 10 since 1969, though, and their bid to end that streak is largely dependent on what happens against Alabama, the overwhwelming division favorite and therefore the towering gate through which every upstart must pass en route to its dream season. (See Texas Tech vs. Texas last year.) It's the rubber match that can dramatically expand or reduce the possibilites of both teams' seasons.
And there's very good reason to think Ole Miss can win it. It's not just a home-field thing: Look at the Rebels' effort against then-No. 2 'Bama last year in Tuscaloosa, when they turned around a lopsided game at halftime, rallied for 17 unanswered points, shut the Tide out in the second half and were driving with the ball in Alabama territory for the go-ahead touchdown with under two minutes to play. Even with the win at Florida behind them, it was that second half that seemed to turn the Rebels' season around: Sitting at 3-4 after the rally fell short, they won their last six by an average margin of 24 points, thoroughly embarrassing LSU, Mississippi State and Texas Tech in consecutive games. Jevan Snead went from a relatively green transfer trying to get his feet under him to a viable Heisman candidate. The per-game rushing average jumped by 50 yards over the last six, and the defense held those six opponents to 57 yards per game on the ground. All of the preseason hype stems from the surge after halftime at Alabama, and the vast majority of the players responsible for it are back.
Still, none of that is quite as strong an argument as a simple "I'll see it when I believe it," the driving force behind my persistent Rebel skepticism since February. With Alabama, we've seen it, not only historically but in the Tide's current iteration: A first-rate coach with a championship resume has quickly upgraded the program's overall talent and took it within half a quarter of the national championship game last year, with a legitimate star at receiver and a top-10 defense that returns almost every significant contributor. The quarterback is going to be the same steady, largely uninspiring, floppy-haired kid 'Bama has trotted out for the last 25 years in a row. We know Nick Saban, we know Alabama, and we can trust them to be exactly who we expect them to be.
Ole Miss we don't know; we have half of a season that directly contradicted the previous four-and-a-half and most of the previous forty. Houston Nutt we don't really know, even after all this time, based on his erratic record at Arkansas. Together, they still seem capable of anything, in either direction. After Alabama, we'll have a firm measuring stick to gauge exactly what the Rebels are about, and what doors are open to them with a very friendly schedule down the stretch.
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SEC Picks to follow on Saturday morning.