It is the consensus of most college football fans that the SEC is the toughest conference in college football. Most preseason polls have at least half of the SEC's teams ranked in the top twenty, but who will be this year's surprise team in the SEC, or is there one? I'm not talking about which team will win the conference, but which team will perform much better than anyone appears to expect them to. I think the SEC surprise team of 2010 will be Ole Miss.
Ole Miss is ranked either last or next to last in the western division in most all of the pre-season football magazines, but I think this ranking is short-sided. Most people look at the fact that Ole Miss only has 10 starters returning, call this a "rebuilding" year, and continue to focus on the usual powers. There are several factors that these predictions fail to account for, and I believe that these overlooked factors will make the Rebels the SEC surprise team of 2010.
Even though Ole Miss returns only 10 starters, they do not have to play any of the top three teams from the eastern division, they have a very favorable schedule, plenty of returning talent in key positions, and the advantage of once again being taken for granted. Most people simply focus on the Rebels losing Snead, McCluster, Hodge, and talent in the offensive line, but what they fail to account for is that much of the Rebels backup talent got a lot of playing time in 2009.
They aren't exactly untested bench-warmers who will be taking the field for the first time. In fact, I expect the Rebels to actually be stronger at the quarterback position, the defensive line, and the linebacker corps. Furthermore, Ole Miss returns plenty of talent in their backfield and their receivers should be just as productive as last year. If the offensive line jells early on, when the schedule is a cakewalk, the offense could be more productive than last years unit. The same goes for the defense if the defensive backfield falls into place.
Historically, Houston Nutt's teams have stepped up when they have been in the underdog position, which is where the Rebels will find themselves in 2010 when playing the conference powers. The first five games offer the Rebels a chance to work out the kinks before the real competition starts. This should allow the new quarterback(s) time to get into the swing of things and the offensive line and defensive backfield time to gain some experience.
On top of that, Ole Miss catches Alabama at a good time, after a bye week and after Bama plays three tough games in a row - at Arkansas, hosting Florida, and at South Carolina. The Rebels also get Arkansas and Auburn after they both come off a tough two weeks of competition, the Hogs against Texas A & M and Auburn, and the Tigers against Arkansas and LSU. These teams take a toll on their competition. The stakes are high in these games, emotions are high, and a let downs after these games are a distinct possibility. In addition, the Rebels get MSU at home and after they get pounded by Bama and Arkansas.
Don't misunderstand me, I'm not picking the Rebels to win the SEC West, but I do believe that a third nine win season is a very real possibility, especially with the way all of these factors line up. They don't look like a top ten team, but I look for the Rebels to surprise many people this year and to pull off at least one big upset during the three game stretch against Alabama, Arkansas, and Auburn. SEC fans should not be shocked if the Rebels end up with another nine win season and appear in a third New Year's day bowl game.