To say optimism is high in Oxford is an understatement.
The Ole Miss Rebels enter 2009 with their sights set on their first trip to Atlanta and an outright SEC West title.
The only team to beat Florida last year has one of the nation's best returning QBs in Jevan Snead and carries the momentum from a Cotton Bowl upset of Texas Tech to this season.
To get a better look at Ole Miss, I talked with one of the best Rebel blogs, The Red Cup Rebellion.
After a Cotton Bowl Win and now a top 10 preseason ranking, what has the atmosphere been like around the Rebel program this offseason?
The atmosphere has been unbelievable.
To finish the season by obliterating our two chief rivals (31-13 over LSU and 45-0 over Mississippi State) and thumping a top 10 team in a New Year's Day bowl before realizing that you return a majority of your starters along with your chief offensive playmakers is naturally a thrilling experience.
People were certainly excited during the 2003 season, which saw a senior, Eli Manning, lead the Rebels to a 7-1 SEC record, but I doubt any were this excited before the season even started.
All of the ESPN love, Sports Illustrated covers, and constant chatter surrounding the program seem only to fuel this fire. It is truly a spectacle.
Are we going to see any tweaks in QB Jevan Snead's game in year two under Houston Nutt?
Halfway through last season, something clicked. I have no idea what it was, but it caused Snead to change from the talented but reckless gunslinger (10 TD and 10 INT through seven games) into the deadly accurate offensive leader (16 TD and 3 INT through six).
He stopped forcing plays to happen and began allowing them to happen. He threw fewer errant passes, took the occasional sack, and minimized the heroics in favor of simply getting the job done.
During that time, the coaches gave him increasing authority and opportunity to check plays and call audibles because, frankly, he earned it.
I would expect more of the same development through this upcoming season.
Kent Austin, the Rebels' offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, has a ton of confidence in Snead and is rumored to have designed a whole slew of new plays which will hopefully maximize Snead's abilities.
The line looks like the biggest question mark on offense. Who steps up and replaces the two starters gone?
With regard to replacing Maurice Miller at right guard, a steady rotation including Brandon Green, Rishaw Johnson, and others should certainly suffice. Miller was a gigantic bulldozer, but he's hardly irreplaceable.
Michael Oher, on the other hand, is irreplaceable. He will certainly go down as one of the greatest linemen in the history of SEC football. Sophomore Bradley Sowell has the frame to be an excellent left tackle, but hasn't near the necessary experience or skill set to replace Oher. If he can get decent-to-good, we Rebels will be satisfied with him.
Coach Nutt's latest recruiting class did feature Bobby Massie, a gigantic tackle out of Virginia with offers from Virginia Tech, Georgia, Alabama, and others.
While not expected to be a legitimate left tackle as a true freshman (even Oher did not play left tackle as a freshman), Massie could step in during certain situations or fill in at some guard spots. He is just too big and too strong to keep off of the field.
The defense returns most of the starters from a year ago, but loses four of the top five tacklers. Who needs to step up?
The biggest losses are Peria Jerry and Jamarca Sanford.
Jerry, a first round pick in last year's NFL draft, was last season's most dominant nose tackle in the SEC by a very big margin. His endless motor and vicious nasty streak made him the cornerstone of a defense which led the nation in tackles for a loss.
Replacing Jerry will be a rotation of tackles, all of whom saw legitimate playing time last season. Jerrell Powe, Ted Laurent, nor Lawon Scott will individually be as reliable as Peria Jerry, but as a unit, they should be fine.
Sanford, a second-day pick by the Minnesota Vikings, was a hard-hitting strong safety.
He will be missed in run support, but hardly in coverage, where his skills were marginal at best. Replacing him will be Johnny Brown, an athletic safety who was slated to start last season's opener until sidelined with a hamstring injury.
The other top tacklers lost to graduation would be a pair of linebackers: Tony Fein and Ashlee Palmer. Very few Rebels are worried about the void they have left.
While both were excellent (Fein was a leader and tough in run support while Palmer was athletic and consistent), neither were full-fledged starters. They shared a significant amount of playing time with guys who will get the starting nods this year.
Replacing Fein at MLB will be Johnathan Cornell and replacing Palmer on the weak side will be Patrick Trahan. Both Cornell and Trahan are legitimate SEC-caliber linebackers who saw a great deal of playing time towards the end of last season.
Folks may remember Trahan as the linebacker who dropped Graham Harrell for a safety in the Cotton Bowl.
Will star DE Greg Hardy be 100 percent for the opening game after the auto accident this summer?
I doubt Hardy will be truly 100 percent until a few weeks into the season.
His foot injuries have nagged him for years and I won't ever believe a healthy Greg Hardy until I see a healthy Greg Hardy.
If he were to be 100 percent healthy though, he would lead the conference in sacks by a wide margin. He only saw limited reserve action in nine games last season, but still managed to tally 8.5 sacks.
If he were a starter through 12 (or 13, or 14), he could easily pull in 13, 14, or even 15 sacks on the season. I swear I'm not kidding at all here.
Who are the impact freshman this year?
There could be several, but the Rebel freshman most folks will become acquainted with by the end of the season is Patrick Patterson.
Patterson, the Magnolia State's No. 1 overall recruiting prospect last season, is a 6'3", 220 lb. wideout with large hands, long arms, and incredible leaping ability. He could easily be one of this season's star freshman wideouts a la Alabama's Julio Jones or Georgia's AJ Green from last season.
D.T. Shackleford at linebacker, Rodney Scott at tailback, and even Raymond Cotton at quarterback (there are rumors of him being used in certain packages) could see significant playing time this season as well.
The Rebels are coming into the year with a lot of hype, but some are skeptical with Houston Nutt as a favorite. Tell me why Ole Miss is for real this year?
Recently, we conducted a position-by-position breakdown of this upcoming team to the last legitimate Rebel contender for the SEC: Eli Manning's 2003 squad.
We determined that Manning is a better quarterback than Snead and was blessed with having a better offensive line. That's it.
Snead's 2009 Rebels have a better stable of halfbacks, more talented receivers, and a defense which dwarfs its counterpart in size, speed, and talent.
Who do you see as the bigger challenge in the SEC West: LSU or Alabama and why?
We've been asked this question a million times, so the answer may seem a bit rehearsed, but it's Alabama by a mile.
Why? We lost to Alabama last season. We spanked LSU. It's really that simple.
Sure, there's the idea that LSU's hype is based solely on their deceptively dominant Chick-Fil-A Bowl victory (GA Tech had seven turnovers while nearly matching LSU's offensive output) and the fact that, simply, they're LSU.
They were dominant over no in-conference foe last year, with their largest margin of victory over an SEC school coming in the form of a 34-24 victory over a horrible Mississippi State team.
People are talking about Jordan Jefferson, but we're not buying it yet. He was mediocre against us in a loss, lost to Arkansas (completing less than 50 percent of his passes against their porous secondary) and averaged 5.7 yards per attempt against Georgia Tech. In case you were wondering, that's worse than Mississippi State's quarterbacks did against GA Tech.
All-SEC halfback Charles Scott is not impressive against stout run defenses (he averaged one yard per carry against the Rebels) and, unless John Chavis is just that good of a coordinator, their defense won't be worlds better from last seasons.
Alabama though, while not possessing the same offensive power they did last season, should have what may become the best defense in America. You can't help but find Alabama as the bigger challenge.
What is your prediction for Ole Miss?
We'll be having our previews and predictions up on our site a few days before kickoff. Without giving any away, I'll say that anything less than 8-4 would be disgusting, something around 10-2 makes sense, and something like 12-0 is almost impossible.
My thoughts on Ole Miss
I will admit I have been a skeptic of Ole Miss, but the Red Cup Rebellion is making me think twice.
Most years, Snead would be the best QB in the SEC and he would have arguably the best skill position players, but Florida takes that title this year.
I am very concerned about the offensive and defensive lines for the Rebels.
This is where they won a lot of their game last year with All-SEC T Oher leading the charge on offense and dominant DT Jerry on the defense. Ole Miss has to find more than suitable replacements here to win the west.
The schedule is about as forgiving as one can be in the SEC.
Ole Miss gets Alabama and LSU to come to Oxford with no Florida or Georgia from the east.
I think we will find out by Oct. 3 if this team is for real when it travels to South Carolina (Sept. 24) and Vanderbilt (Oct. 3). These are two teams the Rebels lost to last year in games surrounding the Florida win. If Ole Miss wants to be a big boy it has to win these games!
This is the year for Nutt to shake the perception he can't cut it when he is the hunted.
He has better talent than he ever had at Arkansas (mostly thanks to Ed Orgeron), an All-SEC QB, and a schedule that is very manageable. If he isn't going to do it this year, I don't know if he ever will.
9-3, 5-3 in-conference, and a New Year's Day bowl game appearance.
BCS Championship: 25/1
SEC Championship: 9/2 (tied for 2nd)
Win Total: 9
Thanks again to Red Cup Rebellion for their insight.
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