Over the past year, the University of Mississippi (or Ole Miss to the folks educated enough to call it their Alma Mater) has hosted a presidential debate and been named one of Forbes magazine's top 25 public universities. The university has lost its most celebrated chancellor to retirement and replaced him with a former president of the American Heart Association. And the James Beard Award for the Best Chef in the South was bestowed upon Oxford's own John Currence.
But the media attention you are likely to hear today regarding Ole Miss has nothing to do with the above, but rather the preseason hype for the 2009-2010 Ole Miss Rebel football team. Magazines, television pundits, and rogue bloggeurs all seem to agree that the Rebels are a good and legitimate contender for the SEC West, if not overall title. Very few pundits have Ole Miss outside of the top-10 and even fewer, if any, have them outside of the top-15. However, given the nature of the Rebels' seasons post John Vaught--the man who lead Ole Miss to six SEC titles--many are naturally skeptical. One cannot turn on televised college football analysis, make their way through their favorite NCAA websites, or even chat with their sports buddies without being asked the same question about Ole Miss: Are they really that good? Can they live up to the pre-season hype?
Rebel fans are feeling the buildup as well. Many in Oxford are predicting ten or eleven wins. Some have even gone so far as to predict undefeated seasons. But, with SEC fans, that happens every year, right? Coming from an Ole Miss fan, I can answer that the short answer is "yes." The longer answer is also a "yes," but not to this extent. Even reasonable fans in Oxford find themselves trying to poke holes in their beloved football program--it is even second nature for many--but this year it has become somewhat difficult. This just may be that good of a team.
So now the question becomes "what reason do Rebel fans have to be happy?" Simply put, this isn't a season of "what-ifs" as much as it's a season of "probablys," and that's more than most Ole Miss fans have ever been able to say. Ole Miss has as legitimate a shot to represent the SEC West in the SEC Championship game as it has ever had. In fact, many are predicting the Rebels to finally get over that hump this year.
Yes, you're reading this correctly. Several pundits are predicting someone other than LSU, Alabama, or Auburn to play in the Georgia Dome come early December.
To put it simply, Ole Miss' "question marks" aren't nearly as worrisome as everyone else's. Ole Miss must replace an All-American left tackle, as must Alabama. Ole Miss must also replace a first-round draft pick on the defensive line, as must LSU. Every team in the West has holes to fill, but the Rebels return almost every playmaker and the majority of a defense which allowed the Rebels lead the conference in tackles for a loss and hold arch rival Mississippi State to a mere 34 total yards of offense. Most importantly though, Ole Miss returns a quarterback in Jevan Snead who has about as many starts as the rest of the SEC West's signalcallers combined.
The deepest and strongest unit on the team is certainly the defensive line, which boasts as many as three ends and three tackles likely to be drafted. Defensive Coordinator Tyrone Nix does a great job of organizing the line and subbing in linemen at the right times as well. Whenever the first string is gassed, he isn't afraid to put in a brand new line, and that's not unreasonable in this case. There are at least eight defensive linemen that could play almost anywhere in the conference. That kind of depth is unheard of in Oxford. While most Ole Miss fans believe that former head coach Ed Orgeron's recruiting ability is overrated--with Orgeron signing only two cornerbacks in three years at Ole Miss, among other things--no one can dispute that he left the cupboard full all along the defensive line. If All-American defensive end Greg Hardy can ever string together an entirely healthy season, the unit may be the absolute best in the country.
The Ole Miss running game doesn't get enough publicity, and that's probably because there's not one halfback who stands out above the rest in Houston Nutt's run-by-committee system. However, that's about to change. Sophomore tailback Brandon Bolden emerged from the spring as a clear-cut starter, and he should see more snaps than any other Rebel halfback. Sure, Nutt will continue to use a by-committee approach, but expect Bolden to see more than his fair share of snaps. He won't disappoint either. If you haven't gotten a chance to see the 5'11" 230 lb. power runner go, you'll have plenty of opportunities this year. The Rebs are tentatively scheduled for television appearances ten times, and at least two of those will be nationally televised. By the end of the season, plenty of people will know just who Brandon Bolden is.
But don't forget that guy who has to touch the ball on every play. The aforementioned Jevan Snead has impressed college football fans from accross the country. Against LSU in 2008, Snead led scoring drives which would have made Eli Manning drop his jaw. At that moment, Rebel fans knew that they had something really special in the sophomore quarterback. The rest of the nation would find this out too when Snead, depite playing for a huge underdog, would upset a highly ranked Texas Tech team in the Cotton Bowl, passing for 300 yards and three touchdowns.
When talking of Snead, one must also talk about the genius with the playbook. Houston Nutt himself is, in this bloggeur's opinion, a great offensive mind. But, once he coupled his run-heavy approach with the dynamic passing offense promoted by Rebel Offensive Coordinator Kent Austin, who won the Grey Cup (Canada's Super Bowl) as the head coach of the Seskatchewan Rough Riders two years ago, the offense became incredibly dynamic. The Rebs can send 4-wide in the shotgun, line up in the classic I-formation, or run the much-hyped Wild Rebel. Austin has also announced that he has developed a new package called the Super Rebel. With the innovation that this staff has shown so far, nothing is out of the realm of possibility. Many fans worried that Nutt would only be able to run well, based on the his previous Arkansas offense, but whatever difficulties he had establishing a passing game apparently did not spill over in the transition from Fayetteville to Oxford.
The final reason that the Rebels are a chic pick to do well is their absurdly easy schedule. Sure, the Rebels play in the SEC, which helps strengthen any schedule, but scheduling two FCS teams and no out of conference opponents from a conference with a BCS tie-in helps ease that burden. Couple that with the individual matchups in the SEC, which see the Rebels avoiding Florida and Georgia while having LSU and Alabama travel to Oxford, and there's reason to breathe a little easier. Pollsters may not like weak schedules, but they certainly aren't conveying that with their tentative votes this pre-season.
So the question now becomes, why wouldn't the Rebels be picked to win the SEC Western Division? Why can't the Rebs make it to Atlanta? If and when they do get there, what's holding them back from defeating the Florida Gators for the second year in a row? Ole Miss is not breaking in a new coaching staff (Auburn, Mississippi State), quarterback (Alabama, Arkansas), or defensive scheme (LSU); the Rebels return the conferences 2nd greatest quarterback behind the almighty Tebow; and the Western favorite is actually led by a head coach who has--on more than one occasion--been to the SEC Championship game.
Sure, America has reason to doubt the Rebs. But, remember this: before last season's Cotton Bowl, an ESPN poll showed that 93% of America felt that the Rebels would lose that game to the Texas Tech Red Raiders. 93% of America was wrong. Very, very wrong.
Seeing all of this makes the Rebels look great on paper. Despite having seen that, many still feel that the Rebels just cannot live up to preseason hype. "How will they handle expectations," some still ask. If that--upon looking at the Rebel roster, coaches, and schedule--becomes the biggest question the Rebels have to answer this season, we shoud all love their chances.