Through three games, Ole Miss has had some progress and a little setback, but overall, the Rebels have looked completely different from last year's squad. The question that still remains is, "Can Ole Miss go to a bowl game in 2008?"
It all starts with coaching. Houston Nutt has preached during his tenure in Oxford so far that he wants to "change the mindset" within the players. He wants the players to believe they can be contenders in the SEC West. He wants them to believe they can make it to a bowl game not in the next couple of years, but this year.
At 2-1, that goal is certainly possible, but a crucial game against Vanderbilt looms for the Rebels.
Houston Nutt has not only changed the mindset—he's also brought in, in my opinion, a superb coaching staff.
Kent Austin, the offensive coordinator, has already proven the doubters wrong about how much control he'll have over the offense. Many people laughed at Houston Nutt when he said, "We're going to pass the ball at Ole Miss." After three games and 81 pass attempts, I don't hear as many laughs as I used to.
As far as offensive leadership goes, you can't look any further than sophomore QB Jevan Snead. Many Ole Miss fans were hesitant to make a prediction about him (see: Brent Schaeffer saga), but his performance on the road against Wake Forest taught everyone, including Ole Miss fans, that Jevan Snead is "for real."
Although last week he threw two picks against Samford, he's still a great SEC QB. If you were at the game (which I was), what you saw was slight mechanics issues and miscommunication between Jevan and his receivers.
The running game has had its bright spots in the Wild Rebel formation with Dexter McCluster, a small speedy back, at QB. It completely threw Memphis off guard all night, but Wake Forest seemed to be at least prepared for it.
The Rebel coaches must've not wanted to bring out too much of the playbook against Samford, as it was only run a couple of times.
The running game has also had its downside, as almost lining up in the I-Form or other jumbo sets didn't work too well against Wake Forest. Houston Nutt said that he was looking for a leader to show up and said after the Samford game that he believed that player to be junior Cordera Eason.
Against the SEC, I believe you will see Cordera take the majority of the carries, with Brandon Bolden right there with him and Enrique Davis slightly below both of them. They must be able to consistently get five to six yards a carry to open up the passing game.
Opening up the run game through the pass has worked so far, but don't expect it to work every time.
What would be the concerns for Ole Miss not making a bowl game?
I believe the main concern for the Rebel team right now is its defense. Although they've shown bright spots, they still haven't proven they can absolutely stop the spread.
However, there has been a puzzle piece missing that makes its debut this weekend: Greg Hardy, an All-SEC performer and the fourth best DL in the nation according to Rivals, returns to the defensive line for Ole Miss.
Call it just one player, but anybody that has seen this kid play knows he is a freak of nature (see: Alabama vs. Ole Miss 2007). He is going to provide the team a much-needed boost on the defensive front.
Speaking of the defensive line, for the first time Peria Jerry (also All-SEC) is said to be 100 percent coming into the Vanderbilt game. With those two on the field, according to the coaches, it makes for a totally different Ole Miss team on defense.
The linebackers definitely need to have a better showing, being one of the more inconsistent corps on the defensive side. They have to start filling the gaps during the run to take away consistent five- to six-yard gains by the opposition.
The secondary is definitely a weak spot for the Rebels, as they have moved starting WR Marshay Green and slot receiver and UCLA transfer Jeremy McGee to the corners. Kendrick Lewis has been the surprise of the bunch at safety, but he definitely needs to work on finishing on blitzes.
Jamarca Samford has been the most consistent and overall best player in the secondary thus far, and the Rebels need his leadership for the remainder of the season to compete in a bowl game.
Overall, the Rebels are far ahead of schedule in my opinion. Nobody expected them to put up 103 points through three games. Nobody expected them to take Wake Forest, an ACC contender, to the wire on the road. Nobody expected Brandon Bolden and Dexter McCluster to be able to run the Wild Rebel efficiently.
Looking at the schedule, I believe Ole Miss is looking like a 6-6 or 7-5 team for the season. Games against Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Arkansas, Louisiana-Monroe, Mississippi State, and possibly Auburn (if Auburn's offense doesn't get any better) all look winnable. Also, games against Alabama, LSU, and Florida have all been statistically close over the years.
I think it's been proven that Ole Miss definitely has the athletes to win games against the SEC, but the main thing they need is to learn how to finish, something Houston Nutt and his staff have emphasized since last November.
I can't stress how important Saturday's game against Vanderbilt is for the Rebels.
It'll either get the monkey off Ole Miss's back after the 0-8 showing last year and build confidence for the rest of the SEC season, or it'll be another setback for the Rebels, who are looking to make a bowl game for the first time since 2003.