Perhaps more than any other team in college football, the fortunes of the Ole Miss rebels are being discussed and debated nationwide. Everyone seems to have an opinion on them.
One side of the debate argues that the Rebels, led by junior QB Jevan Snead, are clear cut favorites to reach the SEC title game. Others believe they are the most overrated team coming into the season and will finish no better than third in the SEC west.
One thing is for sure: The Rebels will be under more scrutiny than any other team in the SEC this year, and fair or not, their failure or success will be among the biggest story lines of the season.
Are the Rebels for real?
Let’s back track to 2008.
Coming into the season, nobody expected Ole Miss to do much in the SEC. In fact, outside of their home state they weren’t talked about much at all.
The Rebs started their '08 campaign by losing two of their first four games. The first came Wake Forest, and then to Vanderbilt in their own stadium.
Who cares, right? They are Ole Miss, and it’s not a big deal even when they win games, much less when they lose.
Then came the shocker. Out of nowhere, Ole Miss went into Gainsville and knocked off Florida in one of the most exciting games of the season.
After that monumental win, the Rebels became sort of an overnight sensation.
Whether or not they would carry this momentum into more success remained to be seen, but for the first time since Eli Manning led them to a 10-3 season and a Cotton Bowl win, Ole Miss was relevant again.
Ole Miss went on to lose their next two games (vs. South Carolina 24-31, at Alabama 20-24), but even so, people were beginning to realize that Ole Miss was a team to be reckoned with. In fact, after the win, Nick Saban had high accolades for the Rebels, saying they were one of the best teams 'Bama had faced all season.
The Rebels would not lose another game the rest of the season. They finished the year on a six-game winning streak, including an impressive 31-13 rout of LSU in Baton Rouge and a 47-34 win in the Cotton Bowl vs. Texas Tech.
With success come expectations, something the Rebels haven’t had in Oxford since maybe the John Vaught era, but an abundance of talent does return that is giving rebel fans everywhere a reason to be optimistic.
Ole Miss returns eight starters from a defensive unit that allowed just 19 ppg and was fourth in the nation in rushing defense. Senior DE Greg Hardy returns as a pass rush specialist and was tabbed a pre-season first team All-SEC selection. Three of four lineman and two of three linebackers return from a unit that led the nation in tackles for loss at 111.
In short, the defense is loaded.
On offense, the Rebs return one of the top signal callers in the nation in Snead. Snead will have the luxury of having his favorite target, Dexter McCluster, return on offense, one of the most dangerous weapons in the nation.
What does it all mean for the Rebels in 2009? Time will tell. They do get the luxury of not having to play Florida and having Alabama and LSU come to Oxford.
As for my projection, let’s just say I’m on the bandwagon.
I see them losing one game, either to LSU or 'Bama, and upsetting Florida in the SEC championship game.
How’s that for an encore?