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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 65: Mississippi

Houston Nutt’s first two teams in Oxford could score points and get stops. That’s how you win 18 games over two years in the SEC, folks. Last year’s team could still score points but was terrible defensively, allowing a program-record 422 points — nearly a touchdown more per game than Mississippi’s previous low-water mark. What happened in the span of one season? The Rebels were equal opportunity offenders, allowing opponents to move the ball at will through the air and with ease on the ground. Better yet, what happened to this team, this program? The two-year upswing under Nutt hit a massive speed bump, raising some questions about whether the former Arkansas coach can continue to win in Oxford while using his own players, not those left over from the previous coaching regime.

SEC, West

Oxford, Miss.


Returning starters
14 (9 offense, 5 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 41

2010 record
(4-8, 1-7)

Last year’s

No. 89

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
  • Sept. 10
    Southern Illinois
  • Sept. 17
    at Vanderbilt
  • Sept. 24
  • Oct. 1
    at Fresno St.
  • Oct. 15
  • Oct. 22
  • Oct. 29
    at Auburn
  • Nov. 5
    at Kentucky
  • Nov. 12
    Louisiana Tech
  • Nov. 19
  • Nov. 26
    at Miss. St.

Last year’s prediction

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. 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.

2010 recap

In a nutshell One more note on this defense, at least for now: the Rebels allowed 8.4 yards per passing attempt, which ranked 112th in the F.B.S., and ranked third-to-last in the SEC in yards per carry and rushing touchdowns allowed. So in essence, Mississippi did nothing well defensively. It wasn’t supposed to be that way, if you recall. The Rebels were believed to have one of the conference’s best defensive lines, if not the best altogether, but while the line remained talented the results just weren’t there. The offense was fine even if the vaunted quarterback transfer didn’t turn out all that well: there was balance offensively, as well as explosiveness. The offense wasn’t the problem; the defense was. When the dust settled, Ole Miss made a claim to being the worst team in the SEC. Yeah, the Rebels lost to Vanderbilt.

High point Wins over Fresno State and Kentucky over back-to-back weeks. The offense carried the load, as expected, scoring a combined 97 points while the defense allowed 73 points. The win over U.K., which came on Oct. 2, was followed by six straight SEC losses.

Low point Yeah, the Rebels lost to Vanderbilt. At home. And the Rebels lost to Jacksonville State. At home. Those losses were overshadowed by the two nice wins that followed, but they were the difference between 4-8 and a bowl trip. And before I forget: Ole Miss dropped its second straight Egg Bowl, losing to Mississippi State at home for the first time since 1998.

Tidbit Nutt remains the lone Ole Miss coach not named John Vaught to win at least nine games in back-to-back years. Vaught won at least nine games in back-to-back years from 1954-55 and again from 1957-62, when the Rebels ruled the roost in the SEC. Only six coaches have won nine or more games at Ole Miss: Harry Mehre in 1938 and 1940, Vaught in those years above, Billy Kinard in 1971, Billy Brewer in 1990,David Cutcliffe in 2003 and Nutt from 2008-9.

Tidbit (100-word preview edition) Today’s guest writer is loyal reader Flint Foster, whose correct answer to a quiz in the Kentucky preview, which you can find along the right sidebar, earned him the opportunity to pen a 100-word preview of his favorite team. His team? The Ole Miss Rebels. Take it away, Flint:

In 2011, Ole Miss will have a solid and experienced offensive line, along with a stable of excellent running backs.  Considering Houston Nutt’s emphasis on the running game, the Rebels’ offense should be productive even considering their extreme youth at QB and wide receiver.  However, Ole Miss’ poor 2010 defense only got younger this offseason, especially at defensive tackle and linebacker. Slight improvement against the pass is conceivable, but expect significant regression by the defense against the run.

Former players in the N.F.L.

27 LB Charlie Anderson (Kansas City), OG Stacy Andrews (Seattle), C Ben Claxton (Arizona), CB Marshay Green (Arizona), RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis (New England), DE Greg Hardy (Carolina), OG Darryl Harris (Kansas City), WR Shay Hodge (Cincinnati), 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 (Kansas City), DE Jayme Mitchell (Cleveland), OT Michael Oher (Baltimore), LB Ashlee Palmer (Detroit), OT Jermey Parnell (Dallas), DT Jerrell Powe (Kansas City), S Jamarca Sanford (Minnesota), C Chris Spencer (Seattle), WR Michael Spurlock (Tampa Bay), LB Patrick Trahan (Chicago), CB Cassius Vaughn (Denver), WR Mike Wallace (Pittsburgh), LB Patrick Willis (San Francisco).

Arbitrary top five list

Writers with Mississippi ties, with notable work
1. William Faulkner, “The Sound and the Fury.”
2. Tennessee Williams, “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
3. Richard Ford, “Independence Day.”
4. Walker Percy, “The Moviegoer.”
5. Larry Brown, “Dirty Work.”


Houston Nutt (Oklahoma State ‘80), 22-16 after three 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 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. Last fall was disappointing, but we’ll see in 2011 and 2012 if that was an aberration or a sign of things to come. One thing is clear: the program has come a 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, where he encountered varying levels of success before Nutt and the university made a mutual decision to part ways in 2007. 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 has done well. Last year was a disappointment, however.

Tidbit (coaching edition) One year was enough for Ole Miss and offensive coordinator Dave Rader. His replacement is former N.F.L. assistant David Lee, whose connection with Nutt dates back to Arkansas in 2007: Lee was Nutt’s coordinator for his final season in Fayetteville and even came with Nutt to Oxford after that season, but left the job after a month to join the Miami Dolphins. So he’s back in town. Lee is one of three new additions, joining former Oklahoma State assistant Gunter Brewer as the new wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator and former Kansas State assistant Keith Burns as the secondary coach. Two interesting notes about the latter pair: Brewer, the son of former Ole Miss coach Billy Brewer, will take some Dana Holgorsen lessons with him to Oxford, which is very intriguing, while Burns served as Nutt’s first defensive coordinator at Arkansas from 1998-99. Like Rader, Burns is also a former head coach at Tulsa; let’s see if he hangs around until 2012.

Players to watch

I think the biggest coaching move of the winter was the one that never came to pass: offensive line coach Mike Markuson remained in Oxford despite a slight demotion — he was the co-offensive coordinator last fall — which is absolutely wonderful news for the Rebels and the offensive line, which continues to grow under Markuson’s tutelage. Markuson will coordinate the Ole Miss running game, which keeps him in the loop in terms of play-calling, but it’s as a line coach that he makes his money — and he’s one of the best of the business.

Say what you will about the rest of the offense: this line is very good. It’s potentially terrific, in fact, thanks to the return of all five starters from a year ago and five more linemen with past starting experience. It’s a group led by two standout tackles: Bradley Sowell on the left side and Bobby Massie on the right, giving the Rebels the best starting tackle duo in the SEC. Junior A.J. Hawkins returns at center, but there may be a shakeup at guard. On the left side, incumbent starter Alex Washington is neck-and-neck with senior Logan Clair, who made three starts at right guard in 2010. On the right side, Jared Duke has been leapfrogged by former Arkansas transfer Matt Hall. These are the good sort of problems: you can never have too much depth up front.

These big guys will be leading the way for all-SEC running back Brandon Bolden, who tied a school record with 17 total touchdowns and 14 rushing scores a year ago. To say Bolden is invaluable might be an understatement: he not only paced Ole Miss in rushing (976 yards) but also in catches (32) and all-purpose yards (1,320), and already ranks among the program’s top 10 in rushing and touchdowns. Bolden must love his teammates up front, I’d imagine. There’s depth here with Senior Enrique Davis (337 yards) and sophomore Jeff Scott (429 yards, 6.5 yards per carry). The running game is going to hum along; it’s one of the best in the SEC.

The Rebels are very thin at receiver. Junior Melvin Harris will again lead the way after making 30 grabs for 408 yards a year ago, but he’s going to need help from a batch of youngsters, none of whom bring any substantial playing time into 2011. This list includes holdovers like redshirt freshman Vincent Sanders and sophomores Ja-Mes Logan, Terrell Grant, as well as the wonderfully-named Philander Moore, a recent JUCO addition and an all-name favorite of Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples. It seems like Ole Miss will continue to rely on Bolden to make plays in the passing game. It also seems like one of a few heralded incoming freshmen might be able to make an impact, like Donte Moncrief, Tobias Singleton and Nickolas Brassell. Someone needs to step up and compliment Harris.

Now, the big question facing this offense: Who’s going to play quarterback? The three options, from most likely to least: JUCO transfer Randall Mackey, West Virginia transfer Barry Brunetti and JUCO transfer Zack Stoudt. That’s right, none of the three had taken a snap in this offense prior to the spring. Brunetti is an interesting story: the N.C.A.A. allowed him to transfer without accruing a redshirt season, so he’s eligible immediately. But I think the job is going to be Mackey’s, as his combination of a big arm and great athletic ability gives him the highest ceiling. We may not have an answer until well into fall camp.

It’s vital that this defense turn the page on 2010 and start fresh this fall, putting behind them the weekly embarrassment that was a season ago. To do so, Ole Miss will have to rebuild up front and locate new faces at linebacker, with the latter position suffering a devastating blow when all-SEC candidate D.T. Shackelford suffered an A.C.L. tear in April. He may be back around October, but Ole Miss might want to keep him off the field and earn a medical redshirt in return.

His replacement — for a few weeks, at least — was sophomore Clarence Jackson, but he was dismissed from the team in May. That leaves junior Joel Kight (35 tackles, 2 sacks) as the lone returning starter at linebacker; he’ll move to the strong side after starting the first seven games of 2010 on the weak side. Sophomore Mike Marry could stay in the middle or move outside to replace Shackelford, with redshirt freshman Ralph Williams the likely starter at middle linebacker if Marry does make the move.

For now. Most are expecting five-star freshman recruit C.J. Johnson to make an immediate impact, and if those who follow recruiting are to be believed, he’s someone who could step on the field and start from day one. In a perfect world, in my mind, Johnson would step in on the weak side, which would play to his athletic ability, while Marry remains in the middle. Another pair of freshmen, Serderius Bryant and Keith Lewis, might also step into immediate playing time.

One area where Ole Miss must continue to do well is in the pass rush, which will be a tall order with several new, inexperienced faces dotting the depth chart along the defensive line. And losing Shackelford is yet another damaging blow to the Ole Miss front seven. But there is some speed and athleticism at linebacker. Even if Johnson struggles learning the nuances of the college game, perhaps he could still make plays merely as a rush outside linebacker.

The Rebels can go three deep at cornerback once senior Marcus Temple (48 tackles) recovers from spring surgery for a sports hernia. Ole Miss was extremely pleased with the play of JUCO transfer Wesley Pendleton, who could push Temple or sophomore Charles Sawyer (49 tackles, 2 picks) for starting role come September. At worst, he’s a very valuable addition to a secondary that couldn’t land any big plays for this defense: Ole Miss made only six interceptions all season.

Senior Damien Jackson (68 tackles, 4.5 for loss) moves over from free to strong safety, replacing Johnny Brown. Sophomore Brishan Matthews, who made 15 tackles in a reserve role in 2010, will get first crack at filling Jackson’s shoes at free safety. He’s facing some competition from JUCO transfer Ivan Nicholas, who had an impressive performance during the spring game.

Position battle(s) to watch

Defensive line The Rebels received some very good news when the N.C.A.A. granted defensive end Kentrell Lockett a sixth year of eligibility, giving Ole Miss an experienced hand along an otherwise unproven defensive front. Lockett tore his A.C.L. four games into last season, cutting short what was due to be a breakout year for the then-senior. He’s still rehabbing his knee, which kept him from participating in spring drills, but his return gives a slightly better outlook for the line heading into 2011. There are still far more questions than answers, even with Lockett returning, and especially at tackle — four seniors must be replaced, so Ole Miss is starting from scratch. It’s this sort of open depth chart that allowed redshirt freshmen Bryon Bennett and Carlton Martin to take on starting roles as Ole Miss enters the summer, though Justin Smith — who has the talent to be a difference-maker — and JUCO transfer Gilbert Pena are also in the mix. But it’s a long way down from four seniors to this group, and Ole Miss is really going to struggle in the early going as these linemen get their feet wet. At least the Rebels are fine at end, with senior Wayne Dorsey (12 tackles, 4 for loss) and junior Gerald Rivers (14 tackles, 2.5 sacks) joining Lockett. Still, the Rebels are not looking good up front.

Game(s) to watch

Call me crazy, but I think the B.Y.U. game is the biggest of the year. It precedes two very winnable games against Southern Illinois — I would hope so — and Vanderbilt, perhaps giving Ole Miss some confidence heading into the heart of SEC action. Then there’s the Egg Bowl, which is always, always, always the biggest game of the year, regardless of record, location, what have you. I love the Egg Bowl so much.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Houston Nutt had said that 2010 looked like a rebuilding year, but I don’t think any of us believed it. This was a team that had all the pieces in place on defense, one thought, and with the arrival of Jeremiah Masoli had the sort of quarterback tailor-made — again, one thought — for what Nutt wanted to do offensively. Well, that wasn’t the case: Ole Miss was rebuilding, surprisingly so, and suffered the consequences in the win column. What’s a little frightening is that this season’s prospects look far less rosy than they did at this point a year ago. This much-maligned defense has very significant holes along the front seven, particularly along the interior of the line. The secondary returns most of last season’s pieces, but this is a group that couldn’t get stops or force turnovers in 2010. The quarterback position remains unsettled and there is a complete lack of proven play-makers at wide receiver. And then there’s this schedule — oh, this schedule — which again leaves little to no time for these Rebels to rise up for air. So there’s the bad news. The good news? The offensive line is superb. Mackey, though inexperienced, has the talent to make things happen under center. The defense, even with these concerns, can’t be much worse. It may just be a matter of pride for Ole Miss: take something from last year’s embarrassment and turn it into motivation to turn things around. I think the Rebels will do that, but it will only take this team so far. The year hinges on how Ole Miss fares against the roughly-equal-to-lesser teams on the schedule: Southern Illinois, Vanderbilt, Fresno State, Auburn, Kentucky and Louisiana Tech. Ole Miss goes bowling if it wins five of those six. Go 4-2 and it will be slightly more difficult. I think Nutt pulls out a bowl bid, but it’s going to be close: 6-6 is a safe prediction, but I doubt Ole Miss can do better than 7-5.

Dream season The Rebels relish the return to an underdog role, playing beyond their means in a 9-3 regular season. That record includes a major win over Alabama and road victory over Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl.

Nightmare season Ole Miss just doesn’t have it: 3-9, 1-7 in the SEC, with a 30-point loss to the Bulldogs to end the season.

In case you were wondering

Where do Mississippi fans congregate? Start with The Oxford Square before moving on to RebelSports.net and Ole Miss Spirit. Additional coverage can be found at the Web site of The Jackson Clarion-Ledger. And I embarrassed to admit that I forgot about Red Cup Rebellion, as a reader pointed out below.

Word Count

Through 56 teams 162,259.

Up Next

Who is No. 64? Tomorrow’s program set or tied 55 offensive school records last fall, including marks for total yards, passing yards and total points scored.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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  1. Xenocide23 says:

    Baylor is up next I think.

  2. Bill Fremp says:

    Spot on. Someone posted this link on my message board today. I am thouroughly surprised at the depth of your knowledge of our team. I’ll be following along for the rest of the countdown. Can’t wait for the season to get here.

    Hotty Toddy!

  3. Uberd says:

    still love that coach nutt post-season rant. great.

  4. Mark says:

    Red Cup Rebellion is another good Ole Miss blog. http://www.redcuprebellion.com/

  5. Alex Payne says:

    Baylor would make a lot of sense too though.

  6. [...] Read more of “No. 65: Mississippi” on PreSnapRead.com 6.29.11 [...]

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