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The 10 saddest Ole Miss teams: David Cutcliffe learns he should've recruited much better before 2004

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Eli Manning hid recruiting deficiencies pretty well for a while. Once he left for the NFL, things got ugly.

Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

After three long weeks of wading through more stink and failure than recommended by doctors -- which included last week's adventure on the shrimp boat seas with Ed Orgeron in 2006 -- we're finally cracking the top five in our countdown. David Cutcliffe's 2004 Ole Miss team followed a season in which the Rebels nearly captured the outright SEC West title (yet still hung a banner saying they did - UGH), broke a 12-year streak of not playing in a non-December bowl game, and won 10 games for the first time since 1971.

You might have said, as many of us foolishly did, things were on the rise for Ole Miss football. We all knew losing Eli Manning to the NFL was going to hurt, but we had Cutcliffe, the quarterback guru, and a roster of talented players at plenty of other positions, so surely there was no way we could take a huge step back, yes?

OH, GRASSHOPPERS. HOW SILLY YOU WERE.

The reality was that Cutcliffe's staggering inability, for six years, to recruit at even a Houston Nutt level left the roster without enough talent to sustain any success without someone like Eli. Take a look at these Scout recruiting rankings from 2002-2004*. Maybe, juuuuust maybe, this was why Cutcliffe met his end and contributed to Ed Orgeron's subsequent talent problems.

  • 2002: 26th
  • 2003: 32nd
  • 2004: 39th

*I pray looking up recruiting rankings from 14 years ago doesn't go on my permanent record.

Though rarely seen in the wild, that is a recruiting class ranked 39th following five winning seasons and a 10-win season one month before Signing Day. But the really uplifting news is that, of the 21 players in that class (look at those names!), only 15 (FIFTEEN) (FIFTEEN) made it to campus by August.

So with all of the false momentum in the world driving the program into a canyon it couldn't yet see, the 2004 season, No. 5 in our countdown, launched and promptly blew up five feet off the launch pad.

5) 2004 (4-7 overall, 3-5 SEC)

schedule/stats via olemisssports.com

Though this team was a game away from being .500 in the conference, it should be noted that the three conference teams they beat were a combined 11-22. They lost their five conference games by a total of 81 points (16.2 points/game) and were outscored on the season in SEC play 142-200.

Even more impressive is that under the tutelage of the man who knows all about quarterbacking, Rebel quarterbacks combined to throw seven touchdowns (!!!) on the year, along with 13 interceptions. Micheal Spurlock, who started the first two games of the season, threw no touchdowns (no INTs though!), while Ethan Flatt tossed six TDs (10 INTs) and Robert Lane managed one passing touchdown (three INTs; though Lane would be the team's second leading rusher with 309 yards).

Before the season started, David Cutcliffe discussed how he would alter his offense to incorporate the dynamic athletic ability of Spurlock, who took over the starting job when Manning moved on to the NFL. Let's recall those words that came out of his mouth.

From the spring of 2004:

Our goal has always been to play to the strengths of our players. That certainly includes Micheal and the types of things we want him to do within this offense. I would expect to see us run the football and would expect to see some option. That will change the personality of this team a little bit, but we won't stray from our basic offensive philosophy...

We will just make minor adjustments so that Micheal has a better chance for success as our quarterback. Evaluating personnel and recognizing strengths are two of the most important things you have to do as a coach. You have to play to the players' strengths.

I remember thinking all of that sounded good. A COACH WHO CAN ADJUST TO WHATEVER IS THROWN AT HIM. He even expanded on those comments in the preseason.

From August of 2004:

We are going to move the football more with him (Spurlock). We will move the pocket. He is a threat to run the football. Micheal is a great part of that package.

So how did all of that adjusting and playing to players' strengths go?

  • vs Memphis: 11 rushes, 6 yards; 31 passes (11-31), 182 yards
  • vs Alabama: 2 rushes, -11 yards; 15 passes (5-15), 54 yards
For your personal files, here's one of the two rushing attempts against Alabama:

Hey, that worked pretty well! Maybe we should try more of tha- AIR IT OUT.

Flatt replaced Spurlock after halftime, which totally fixed everything. And by everything I mean nothing.

After losing to Alabama and beating a 2-9 Vanderbilt team at home in overtime (the Commodores led 23-13 going into the 4th quarter), Ole Miss traveled to Wyoming where they outgained the Cowboys 567-397, but also committed 14 penalties and five turnovers in a loss that would've melted #OleMissTwitter's face. In fact, Ole Miss needed an onside kick with 1:38 to play to even have a chance to win. CAN'T LET OLE MISS HANG AROUND LIKE THAT, WYOMING.

Other than punter Cody Ridgeway averaging 22 yards per carry (RUN THE DANG BALL WITH HIM), one of the only enjoyable moments from the season was the South Carolina game. In an effort to not be terrible on offense, Cutcliffe rotated all three quarterbacks (Flatt, Spurlock, and Lane) on every play, which helped create a 31-28 win.

For reasons I cannot recall (or maybe I'm repressing the sadness), I was at that game and can confirm it was the most PIPE IT UP a group of people has ever been about a bad 2-3 team. We were all so terribly confused by the tomfoolery that we took to hollerin' non-stop because we didn't know what else to do.

Once the three-headed monster reduced Columbia to ruins and moved on to its next city, the season began its final slide into an abandoned mine. After losses to Tennessee and Auburn, a clash of Goliaths was at hand:

via

At least Ole Miss didn't get dunked on, right?

Dammit.

However, all was not lost. Cutcliffe was willing to make other attempts at offensive innovation. Like say, lining up Jamal Pittman (of waving pistols at people and police fame), a 240-pound backup running back, at wide receiver and throwing a four-yard pass to him with third-string quarterback Robert Lane.

And remember way back in August when Cutcliffe said they would run some option? A MAN OF HIS WORD:

Following a loss to LSU, the 2004 team closed out the season with a win over Mississippi State. I found no footage of that game, but did find a person who played the 2004 Egg Bowl on NCAA Football and posted the entire hour-long game on the line.

Judge that person all you want, but thanks to his or her lack of anything better to do, we can capture all of the feelings that occurred during the 2004 season in this series of video and screenshots:

A season fully deserving of that crap scoreboard.