Can Manning lead Rebel yell?

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

Square Books is still there on the corner, where you can get a scoop of ice cream with your Shelby Foote (or John Grisham).

William Faulkner's place is still just south of town, the tree-lined drive same as ever. There on the Grove, in the center of campus, students still study during the week and football fans still picnic on the weekend.

And Ole Miss, just as it did 34 years ago, plays for national glory on Saturday with a Manning under center as a state holds its breath.

As with so many things – often good, sometimes not quite so – things in Mississippi are as unchanged as the architecture around the picturesque square in Oxford. Development has come slowly; traditions have remained strong.

At a school with so much history, so many stories, perhaps that is how it should be.

There is something special about Ole Miss, about football near the Grove, about a son returning to a campus his father put on the map, decades after the map had taken it back off.

In 1969, Archie Manning, then just a junior but en route to being an All-American and Heisman finalist, led the Rebels to the Sugar Bowl, its last major postseason game.

On Saturday, after 34 autumns, many of them spent near the bottom of the SEC, Mississippi hosts LSU with a chance to win the West Division title and Manning's youngest son Eli taking snaps.

The Rebels (8-2, 6-0) are the only unbeaten team in the SEC. A BCS bowl is within their reach. A league title also. The passion and power of football in Oxford restored.

A Manning leads Mississippi. Same then as now.

"It never bothered me when I was thinking of schools that this is where my father went or that it'd be too much pressure," says Eli, whose brother Peyton did consider it and headed to Tennessee to blaze his own trail.

"It was so long ago and the students here might know the name, but they weren't here during the time. They wouldn't know what he did for Ole Miss. I really didn't know what he meant to Ole Miss at the time."

What Archie Manning meant to Ole Miss is just slightly less than everything. The 1960s were as bad as it got for this state, freedom rides and racism, poverty and problems. In 1962 U.S. Marshals had to escort a black student named James Meredith to class at Ole Miss in order to ensure his safety against an angry, ignorant mob.

It was a tough time, an ugly time, and for many people in Mississippi it wasn't a proud time. Football doesn't excuse the sins of the day, but you can understand why people rallied around football. As deserved disgust was directed at Mississippi, this was the one thing that put the state name out there without negativity attached.

When Manning, the golden boy out of little Drew, Miss., showed up and threw for 345 against LSU as a sophomore, 435 (while running for 104) against Alabama as a junior and darn near won the Heisman as a senior, Rebel football became a state obsession.

Manning wasn't just popular; he was a cultural phenomenon. Babies kept turning up named Archie. They wrote a song about him, "The Ballad of Archie Who?", that still gets radio time. And to this day the speed limit on campus is 18 mph, a tribute to his uniform number.

So when Manning, after a star career with the New Orleans Saints, saw his three sons approach college age you can understand why long-suffering Rebel fans expected a return to glory. One son, Cooper, a good but not great receiver, went with the Rebels. But the big prize, super quarterback Peyton, chose Tennessee, where he became an All American and Heisman runner-up as a senior.

Then came Eli, not as hyped as Peyton, but with scholarship offers from throughout the South. Eli didn't mind following his dad; he just didn't want to follow his brother in Knoxville. He was less intense than Peyton and less aware of history. When Peyton's offensive coordinator at UT, David Cutcliffe, was named head coach at Mississippi, it just sort of worked.

"I called Eli the day I got the job," Cutcliffe says. "He and I had talked when I was at Tennessee. We had a great relationship and I respected the fact that he wasn't going to follow Peyton. I called him and told that all the previous talk was off now. Get ready because we are going to recruit you hard."

When he signed, Eli thought few would care. But at a fan appreciation day as a true freshman, he was swarmed. "He hadn't taken a snap here, but he was overwhelmed with the number of people," Cutcliffe says.

Four seasons later he is the best quarterback in the nation. He holds 45 school passing records. This year he is averaging 288.1 yards passing per game and has 23 touchdown tosses. He has a shot at winning the Heisman that eluded both his dad and brother.

And, most importantly, he'll tell you, he has Mississippi one victory away from its first SEC title in 40 years.

"I think it has been a fun season," he smiles. "But obviously it can be a lot better with a win."

A win against third-ranked LSU. A win on national television. A win in Oxford, with the picnics in the Grove, a Manning under center and a state, 34 years later, once again holding its breath.

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