After finishing 2008 with an impressive win in the Cotton Bowl against Texas Tech and a solid 9-4 (5-3 SEC) record, the excitement in Oxford prior to head coach Houston Nutt’s second stanza has been electric.
The AP’s Top 25 Poll had the Rebs in at No. 8 with only Florida and Alabama ranked ahead of them in the SEC. Sports Illustrated had them ranked at No. 6 and put them on the August 17th cover, calling them BCS party crashers.
Nutt, no stranger to party crashing, has a long history of being the giant killer, as evidenced by Ole Miss’ improbable upset of eventual National Champion Florida last year. The question for many is whether the coach can bag the big ones when he is the hunted and not the hunter?
Ole Miss will not be sneaking up on anyone this year with junior quarterback Jevan Snead and senior receiver Dexter McCluster on everyone’s watch lists.
In fact, with four of the top five receivers back, Ole Miss will be plenty capable of putting points on the board and everyone expects it.
The only real question about the team was if some big time play-makers could emerge on the defense, which returns eight starters but no clear cut studs from last year. If so, the party crashing plans might just come to fruition.
What we learned from game one versus Memphis:
According to Bleach Report Senior Writer Leroy Watson, who was on location in Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium to provide coverage of the Rebels’ opponent, “Whoever wins the SEC West is going to have to go through Houston Nutt’s Rebels, these guys are for real.”
The game was hotly contested for three quarters and the Tigers gained the momentum and pulled to within 10 points with 9:09 remaining.
With the issue still in doubt, Ole Miss then ripped off a seven-play, 69-yard TD drive to extend the lead to 31-14. From that point on the Rebels dominated.
“Our defense was outstanding today,” Rebel head coach Houston Nutt said after the game. “One strength we had was the defense being able to rotate some guys so we could keep everyone fresh.”
In fact, Ole Miss was able to pressure the Memphis quarterbacks (Arkelon Hall & Will Hudgens) all game long, though only two sacks were recorded.
They converted two interceptions and a forced fumble into 14 points. The Tigers also turned over on downs twice, which the Rebels offense promptly converted into another 14 points.
This is good news to those wondering if the Rebel’s defense could produce big plays and force the other team to make mistakes.
On the other hand, Memphis put up a good fight for most of the game. “You have to give them credit,” said coach Nutt. “Now I think Memphis is much better. They have some big weapons that we were afraid of.”
There were definitely some issues for Houston Nutt and his coaching staff to be concerned about. Three turnovers, a soft offensive line, and the shaky play by Snead early in the game will not cut it in the SEC West, which looks like the toughest division of any conference in the country.
Nevertheless, Rebel fans are more excited now than they were going in. According to Red Cup Rebellion, a popular fan blog, the last time there was this much buzz in Oxford a guy named Eli was in town.
Even then it was more about the quarterback and not the whole team. This time around the Rebels seem to have the whole package, including the man in charge.
Yes, there is a long way to go with a lot of football to be played. But now that we’ve seen the product on the field, I’m buying Ole Miss as a legitimate contender in the SEC West.
Of course, there are a few other SEC teams that still may have something to say about all that and I’m sticking with my "fearless prediction," but Houston Nutt’s second year in Oxford could be special.
By Henry Ball (Southern Man) Syndicated Writer and Bleacher Report Scribe
Game coverage and commentary by Leroy Watson – Bleacher Report Senior Writer