No. 41: Mississippi
By Paul Myerberg // Jul 24, 2010
It’s not easy replacing a legend. Take the case of former Mississippi coach Billy Kinard, for example, who lasted only three games into his third season before being supplanted by the man he originally replaced, the great Johnny Vaught. It is easy, however, replacing Ed Orgeron. Five wins would have sufficed, would have indicated to the Ole Miss faithful that Houston Nutt, formerly of Arkansas, had this downtrodden program back on the right track. Nine wins? It’s party time in The Grove. Year two yielded another nine-win finish, cementing the Nutt era as the program’s finest in a generation, and illustrating that yes, you can — should, even — win at Ole Miss.
9 (3 offense, 6 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 4
- Sept. 11
- Sept. 18
- Sept. 25
- Oct. 2
- Oct. 16
- Oct. 23
- Oct. 30
- Nov. 6
- Nov. 13
- Nov. 20
- Nov. 27
Last year’s prediction
Now, onto the million dollar question: does Mississippi really have a shot at the national title, or is this another case of a flash – the hot finish to 2008 – over substance? Well, I’m not going to go so far as to say Mississippi is not clearly a Top 25 team; they are, and then some. But this team is not, in my mind, a viable contender for the national title. Not yet, anyway, not a year removed from the Ed Orgeron era and not in the SEC, home games or not. This is all a convoluted way of making this statement: Ole Miss will be good, maybe even great on occasion, and it has the schedule to perhaps earn a place inside the top 10. But let’s not allow a tremendously impressive win over Florida and a bowl victory over a defeated Texas Tech team to blow out of proportion the current status of Mississippi football: it’s still growing as a program, and while I do think the Rebels will improve upon last season’s win total I don’t think one should be penciling it in for a B.C.S. bowl in 2009.
In a nutshell Nothing wrong with another nine-win season, even if Mississippi did enter the year with national title aspirations. Those hopes fell as sharply as its quarterback’s N.F.L. draft hopes, with the Rebels losing three of its first five games, including its two of its first three in SEC play. The Rebels rebounded, however, winning five consecutive games in Oxford to enter bowl play at 8-4, though only 4-4 in the SEC. Among those four losses was a devastating road loss to rival Mississippi State, which sent a clear message to the Rebels: don’t think we’re giving up the state that easy, big boy. For the second consecutive year, Ole Miss went into the off-season on a high note; again, it was thanks to a Cotton Bowl victory over a team from the Big 12. One thing is for sure: these Rebels love the Cotton Bowl.
High point Nothing too impressive through October – Vanderbilt and Arkansas the only two SEC victories – but Mississippi posted two solid wins in its final three games. The first was a 25-23 win over then-No. 8 L.S.U., one aided by massive clock mismanagement from the Tigers. The Rebels also shoved around another spread team from the high-octane Big 12 in early January, beating Oklahoma State by two touchdowns.
Low point South Carolina provided the blueprint on how to beat Mississippi in its 16-10 victory over the then-No. 4 Rebels on Sept. 24. (It involved making the quarterback beat you.) Alabama and Auburn followed Carolina’s lead. Most distressing of all, however, was a 14-point Egg Bowl loss in Starkville. Quick question: For you Ole Miss fans out there, would you rather re-watch the broadcast of that game three times in a row — with commercials, no beverages — or get tackled once by Patrick Willis? Without pads. From the blind side. Willis has a full head of steam.
Tidbit The Rebels had not won nine games in successive seasons since posting at least nine wins in each season from 1957-62, a six-year stretch that marks the heyday of Ole Miss football. Immediate success for a first-year Ole Miss coach is not altogether surprising, Ed Orgeron notwithstanding. Six of the program’s last nine coaches have posted a winning record in their debut season, though only Vaught and Kinard won at least nine games. David Cutcliffe won eight games in 1998, Billy Brewer seven in 1983.
Tidbit (100-word preview edition) It’s that time again. Here’s how it works: I give you a quiz question; you become the first person to answer the question; you win the opportunity to pen a 100-word preview of your favorite team when it appears on the Countdown. Get it? Good. Here’s the question:
Mississippi threw for 21 interceptions last fall, which tied with Miami (Ohio) for the most in the nation. It’s worth noting that while the Rebels tossed 21 picks in 377 attempts, the RedHawks needed 534 attempts to reach that total. Ole Miss offset its penchant for turnovers with a healthy ground game, one that ranked 32nd nationally in rushing. Can you name the four other schools in the F.B.S. to finish in the bottom 20 nationally in interceptions thrown but rank among the top 35 in rushing yards per game?
Teams already spoken for: Arizona (Zaboo), California (katster), Georgia Tech (DivePlay), Michigan (Seth), Navy (Shawn), Texas (Noefli), Texas A&M (Dr. Norris Camacho), T.C.U. (Burnt Orange), Texas Tech (Freakville), Virginia Tech (James), Wake Forest (jjtiller) and Washington (Dr. Klahn).
Former players in the N.F.L.
34 LB Charlie Anderson (Miami), OG Stacy Andrews (Philadelphia), WR Taye Biddle (Minnesota), DE Derrick Burgess (New England), C Ben Claxton (Arizona), RB Cordera Eason (Cincinnati), CB Marshay Green (Arizona), RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis (New England), RB Bruce Hall (Denver), DE Greg Hardy (Carolina), OG Darryl Harris (Kansas City), TE Gerald Harris (Tennessee), WR Shay Hodge (Washington), OG John Jerry (Miami), DT Peria Jerry (Atlanta), S Kendrick Lewis (Kansas City), QB Eli Manning (New York Giants), CB Trumaine McBride (Arizona), WR Dexter McCluster (Kansas City), OG Terrance Metcalf (New Orleans), DE Jayme Mitchell (Minnesota), OT Michael Oher (Baltimore), LB Ashlee Palmer (Detroit), OT Jermey Parnell (New Orleans), S Jamarca Sanford (Minnesota0<), QB Jevan Snead (Tampa Bay), C Chris Spencer (Seattle), WR Michael Spurlock (Tampa Bay), LB Patrick Trahan (Tennessee), CB Cassius Vaughn (Denver), OG Keydrick Vincent (Tampa Bay), WR Mike Wallace (Pittsburgh), LB Patrick Willis (San Francisco).
Arbitrary top five list
Best-looking SEC co-eds
Houston Nutt (Oklahoma State ‘80), 18-8 after two seasons with the Rebels. His debut season with at Ole Miss was an unqualified success: nine wins, including an upset of Florida and a Cotton Bowl win over Texas Tech, and a spot in the final A.P. Top 25, Mississippi’s first postseason ranking since the days of Eli Manning. Even more impressive was the quickness with which Nutt reversed the terrible losing culture that had pervaded the program under his predecessor, who had promised similar results to last fall but failed to reach five wins in any of his three seasons. The Rebels took another step forward in 2009, though they fell somewhat short of their own expectations. The program has come a tremendously long way from the Egg Bowl disaster of 2007, and much – if not all – of the credit deserves to be given to Nutt. He was hired after a decade with West division rival Arkansas, which saw varying levels of success but ultimately a mutual decision to split ways. Nutt was the second-most successful Razorbacks coach of all time — trailing only his former boss, Frank Broyles — leading Arkansas to eight bowl appearances, the most in the SEC West during that time, and an overall record of 75-48, a .610 winning percentage. Nutt was rewarded with a pair of SEC Coach of the Year awards (2001, 2006), but was never fully appreciated for his work by the Arkansas fan base. His final two seasons were among his most successful – a combined 18-8 with an SEC West championship – but were racked by the Mitch Mustain melodrama and F.O.I.A. investigations into his cellphone bills, among other off-field distractions. After those final awful few months, it’s easy to see why Nutt wanted out. He arrived in Oxford with a clean slate and tremendous fan support, and, two years later, he’s brought this program from the embarrassment that was the Orgeron era to back-to-back bowl games — soon to be three straight, in fact.
Tidbit (coaching edition) One small shakeup on the Ole Miss staff: offensive coordinator Kent Austin, a member of Nutt’s original staff, left to take the head coach position at Cornell. He has been replaced by Dave Rader, who coaching experience includes a 12-year stint as the head coach at Tulsa and four years, from 2003-6, as Alabama’s offensive coordinator. Rader will share offensive coordinator duties with offensive line coach Mike Markuson, a longtime Nutt assistant.
Players to watch
Raymond Cotton’s recent departure from the program leaves the starting quarterback position open to Nathan Stanley, a sophomore who served in a reserve role behind Jevan Snead a year ago. The brewing quarterback competition was headed in this direction during the spring, when Cotton’s shoulder injury prevented him from making any significant claim to the starting role. With Cotton gone, the onus will be on Stanley, a highly-rated prospect, to produce. As for Cotton: someday, somewhere, he’ll make some lucky college football coach very happy. Keep an eye on incoming JUCO prospect Randall Mackey, a fall arrival, who will immediately ascend into the second spot behind Stanley on the two-deep. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Mackey could take over for Stanley should the sophomore struggle, especially given Mackey’s athletic ability. Academic concerns delayed Mackey’s arrival, however, costing him the opportunity to participate in spring drills, which will push back his development. Stanley’s the starter come September; whether he remains the starter come December depends on his play.
Two of the most prolific offensive skill players in school history must be replaced: wide receiver Shay Hodge, the first 1,000-yard receiver in school history; and running back Dexter McCluster, who last fall became the first player in SEC history to rush for 1,000 yards and make another 500 yards receiving in the same season. Both are significant losses, McCluster particularly so. It will help to return three backs who rushed for at least 110 yards last fall, including junior Brandon Bolden, whose 618 yards rushing was good for second on the team. Bolden might not have the big-play ability of his predecessor, but has the build and running style to land 20 carries a game. He’ll be spelled by junior Enrique Davis (110 yards rushing, 2 touchdowns) and sophomore Rodney Scott (138 yards, 2 scores); Ole Miss also has a handful of incoming recruits capable of making an impact in the running game, but it would be tough for any additions to break into the mix with this trio in place.
Depth at wide receiver was already to be tested by Hodge’s graduation. It will be tested further by would-be sophomore Pat Patterson’s dismissal from the program; Patterson was expected to play a large role at receiver for the Rebels, but indicated an inability to remain within the lines when it came to following the program’s off-field standards. It will be upon seniors Lionel Breaux and Markeith Summers to shoulder the load in the passing game. Without counting Bolden, Breaux and Summers are the only returning Rebels to have made at least 10 receptions in 2009, with Summers — 17 catches for 394 yards and 4 touchdowns — the only returning receiver of any consequence. Now, if Summers can extrapolate his 2009 output over an entire season in the starting lineup, watch out. Of course, that’s not going to happen. Breaux needs to step up his game, and Ole Miss must land production from some unproven commodities — Ja-Mes Logan and Jesse Grandy, among others — to help ease Stanley into his new starting role.
The defense will carry the load. It starts up front, where the Rebels return four battle-tested seniors. The first is Jerrell Powe, whose windy road to Oxford led him to all-SEC accolades a season ago. The wide-bodied nose tackle is more than just a blocker-eating run-stopper, though he’s certainly a force in that regard: Powe illustrated an effective first step, a burst that allows him to make plays in opposing backfields. He’ll be joined in the starting lineup by senior Lawon Scott, a returning starter at tackle, while Ted Laurent will continue to play an important role as the leading interior reserve. Further depth comes from another senior, LaMark Armour. The Rebels don’t have another linemen quite capable of filling Powe’s shoes, but the interior depth is impressive.
Kentrell Locket — yes, a senior — returns at end, one year after his 39-tackle, 5-sack junior campaign netted him all-conference honors. The opposite side will be manned by Wayne Dorsey, a JUCO transfer with a heavy responsibility: start from day one — and play well. Dorsey has the size and potential to do so, but will need time to acclimate himself to the top level of college football. Unlike at tackle, depth at end is a concern.
The linebacker corps returns a pair of starters. The experience here, along with the talent along the line, gives Ole Miss a strong, athletic front seven upon which to build this defense. Senior Jonathan Cornell (79 tackles, 8 for loss) returns in the middle, as does reserve D.T. Shackelford, a sophomore. Another senior with all-conference ability, Allen Walker, will man the strong side. The biggest question mark will be replacing Patrick Trahan, a stat-stuffer on the weak side last fall.
The Rebels have options. The first is sophomore Joel Kight, who entered the summer ahead of redshirt freshman Alex Williams on the depth chart. Williams is the more athletically gifted of the pair, from all accounts, but will have to show he’s fully recovered from a leg injury that cost him last season. I would think that Shackelford is an option here, as the coaching staff would love to get him on the field in a larger capacity. Whether he can run in space like a weak side linebacker would be my biggest concern.
The lone returning starter in the secondary is senior strong safety Johnny Brown, whose 81 tackles in 2009 was good for second on the team. The Rebels were very pleased with the play of JUCO addition Damien Jackson, who will take on the unenviable task of replacing Kendrick Lewis at free safety. Jackson is a clear example of how a player, particularly a JUCO recruit, can really help his chances by arriving in time to participate in spring practice.
Ole Miss has issues at cornerback, where both starters must be replaced. Senior Jeremy McGee and junior Marcus Temple bring the most experience to the table: McGee, a former transfer for U.C.L.A., made two starts last year; Temple has made a single start in each of the last two seasons. This pair should start, though redshirt freshman Charles Sawyer rode a strong spring performance into the mix.
Position battles to watch
Offensive line I was all set to discuss the Ole Miss quarterbacks in this spot. That position seems to be settled — due to attrition or otherwise — though a larger concern looms: the interior of the offensive line. The Rebels will break in three new starters up front in 2010, due to the departure of center Devarin Geralds and guards Reid Neely and John Jerry, the latter one of the top linemen in the SEC. It’s not just the lost experience; it’s that, by and large, Ole Miss returns few game-tested linemen in 2010 — outside of the two bookend tackles, of course. It will be junior Bradley Sowell on the left side and sophomore Bobby Massie on the right, as was the case over the second half of last season. Massie, one of the rare freshmen linemen to make an immediate impact in the SEC, is a future star. The concern, obviously, is in the middle. While returns from the spring were largely positive, citing consistent improvement, it’s difficult to project what level of play Ole Miss is due to receive from its three new starters. One, junior right guard Rishaw Johnson, is ready to step into the starting lineup; he made four starts at right guard last fall. New left guard Alex Washington, a junior, made a single start a year ago. The biggest question mark must be center, where sophomore A.J. Hawkins, little-used last fall, holds a slight edge over freshman Even Swindall. Even with its losses, I think the Ole Miss offensive line will remain a physical, intimidating group in the run game; with a new quarterback, however, this front will need to prove itself capable of protecting the passer.
Game(s) to watch
Mississippi State. It’s always the game of the year, but this year’s tussle will be integral to Mississippi’s January bowl hopes: win, and the Rebels might finish with five conference wins; that would spell nine wins overall, a magic number for bowl selection committees. The Rebels play four very difficult SEC road games — Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee and L.S.U. — with a split of that quartet a best-case scenario. If Ole Miss does take a pair, it will be in line for a second-place finish in the West division.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell I’m not sure about this perception that Ole Miss plays better as the hunter, not the hunted. What is this idea based upon? That the Rebels won nine games in 2008, when little was expected, then won nine more games as a national title dark horse last fall? Seems to me to be a bit overblown. Ole Miss plays good football — under Nutt — as the favorite, the underdog, at home and away, and the idea that the third-year coach can only properly motivate his team when the chips are down is, well, ridiculous. To be fair, this year’s team is landing little respect, largely due to the lost talent on both sides of the ball. And no, the Rebels are not a viable contender in the SEC West; not with games against Alabama, Arkansas and L.S.U. coming on the road. No team in the country is leaving that schedule unscathed, particularly a team breaking in such a number of new starters. Or a team with such issues on offense. Nathan Stanley is inexperienced; McClusters, and his game-breaking ability, will be sorely missed; depth at receiver is a major concern; as is the interior of the offensive line. Make no mistake: this defense will have to shoulder a heavy load. The weak schedule should allow the Rebels to ease their way into the season, a year that ramps into gear beginning with a trip to Tuscaloosa in mid-October. The Rebels should enter that game at 4-1, perhaps 5-0; the season will be made in SEC play. Don’t predict any miracles, and don’t think that Ole Miss, again an underdog, is capable of taking the deadly West division. The schedule should lead to eight wins, but this team has more questions than answers.
Dream season Nine more wins, with losses coming only to Alabama, Arkansas and L.S.U.
Nightmare season The losses are far too difficult to overcome, particularly on offense. The defense does its best, but the youngsters on the offensive side of ball struggle in their new roles.
In case you were wondering
Where do Mississippi fans congregate? Start with The Oxford Square before moving on to Ole Miss Spirit and RebelSports.net. Additional coverage can be found at the Web site of The Jackson Clarion-Ledger, Kyle Veazey’s home turf. Veazey doesn’t cover both the Bulldogs and Rebels; the opposing fan bases would rip him apart, of course. David Brandt is your man at the Ledger for Ole Miss coverage.
Who is No. 40? Our next program has failed to score 300 points in each of the last four years. Not surprisingly, this team has not lost fewer than six games in any of these seasons.
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Tags: Houston Nutt, Mississippi
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