Ole Miss: Pretender or Contender?

John StevensCorrespondent IJuly 16, 2009

GAINESVILLE, FL - SEPTEMBER 27:  Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt celebrates after a game against the University of Florida at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on September 27, 2008 in Gainesville, Florida.  (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

"Hotty Toddy, Gosh Almighty, Who in the hell are we? Hey, Flim-Flam, Bim-Bam, Ole Miss By Damn."

That little Ole Miss cheer is being sung throughout Mississippi as expectations for the 2009 version of Rebel football are higher than they have been in a good long time.

Ole Miss fans believe that they have good reason for such optimism. Last year, they were delivered from their usual place as SEC cellar-dwellers by the arrival of Houston Nutt as their new head coach.

Nutt's revival of competitive football in Oxford has Rebel fans believing that this is the year that they will contend for—and perhaps win—the SEC Championship.

Ole Miss does have returning starter Jevean Snead at quarterback, as well as several good receivers to include speedy Dexter McCluster. They return a solid nucleus on an offensive line that averages 322 pounds per man, though they must replace two starters in Michael Oher and Maurice Miller.

The backfield is also solid returning experienced performers like Cordera Eason, Brandon Bolden and Enrique Davis, all of whom have speed and exceed 220 pounds.

Defensively, Ole Miss will return eight starters and their front seven should again be solid, just as they were last year. Ole Miss was No. 4 in rush defense and sacks in the NCAA last year, led by Peria Jerry, whom they lost to the 2009 NFL Draft. This front seven helped Ole Miss to a No. 14 ranking in defending third-down conversions last season.

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The Ole Miss secondary was their weak suit last year, ranking No. 81 in pass defense, though they did have a respectable ranking of No. 26 in INTs.

One of the biggest issues for the Ole Miss defense is the fact that they were soft in the red zone last year, where they ranked a very meager No. 73 in Division I. Being in a conference where teams live and die by their defense, this has to change if Ole Miss has any notion of making it to the conference championship.

Ole Miss, for all intents and purposes, should have a fine team that could contend for the SEC championship. They have one of the softest schedules in the country and their most difficult SEC games, against the likes of Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee and LSU, are all at home.

They also have four rent-a-wins vs. teams like Memphis, Southeastern Louisiana, UAB and Northern Arizona. Looks like we might as well pick them for a BCS Bowl right now, right? 

As Lee Corso might say, "Not so fast, my friend."

As I pointed out earlier, the Ole Miss defensive secondary is soft. This will be their Achilles' heel. Let's look at which teams on their schedule present a threat to them in this regard.

While the SEC has traditionally embraced a "run-first" offensive concept for years, that may be changing. Teams appear to be transitioning to more "pro style" and "spread type" offenses.

I can assure you that Nick Saban at Alabama didn't recruit wide receiver Julio Jones to block down field, and his 15.93 yards per catch last year as a true freshman proves that out. Do you think they are going to throw more often or less often to him?

I'm thinking, more.

The Crimson Tide will have one of the best defenses in the nation. Look for them to shut down Snead and the Ole Miss running game as well. Still peeved about their textbook scandal, Alabama will bring a lot of emotion to this game, which will be played in Oxford. The Rebels better be glad they aren't playing in Tuscaloosa: Bama wins by seven or more.

South Carolina is desperately searching for a consistent passer to fuel their offense. If Garcia is that guy, they might be a lot better than anyone expects, and South Carolina will have the advantage of playing Ole Miss at home. The Gamecocks will have a good defense again, and Spurrier is on the hot seat to make something happen.

I think the Reb's get their first loss in Columbia.

Call Bobby Petrino any name you want, but while you are at it, include the title of "offensive genius."  Petrino has been quickly re-shaping the Razorbacks and their receivers are among the very best in the SEC already. The major question mark is whether they have someone who can deliver the ball consistently to the receivers.

The jury is still out on Ryan Mallett, but if he can be more productive than Casey Dick was last year, this team may light up the scoreboards of the SEC.

Add to this the ill feelings that are still harbored by many Arkansas fans towards Nutt and a crazy close loss to the Rebels last year, and I predict this will be one of the most competitive, exciting and entertaining games in the SEC all year.

"The Grove" might not survive this one. Ole Miss fans will take heart in the fact that they won the "tailgate parties," but the Razorbacks will win the game.

Auburn imported a new staff that is led by Gene Chizik, the former Iowa State head coach. Everyone is saying this is a mistake.


Chizik will be involved with the defense, his area of expertise. He will allow Gus Malzahn, the former OC that designed and ran high powered offenses at Arkansas and Tulsa to take the offensive reins. Auburn may not be an offensive juggernaut this year, but they will be soon.

This year, they will be just dangerous enough to scare the heck out of opposing defensive coordinators.

They'll score points on Ole Miss and Auburn's defense will be good. Ole Miss will win this game at Auburn...but by a closer margin than you think.

Tennessee will make strides this year to have a more potent offense and they will have some success, but not against Ole Miss. Ole Miss wins this one by 14.

Then there is LSU.

The Bayou Bengals will be coming into this game with only one loss to Florida. Knowing the significance of the contest, LSU will be ready. They are going to have a solid but not spectacular offense. It will, however, be much improved over last year.

LSU's defense will be up to handling anything that Ole Miss throws at them and the LSU offense will give the Ole Miss defense more trouble than they want

You guessed it: LSU wins this game by seven.

I am sure that there are those of you who were all set to jump on the Ole Miss bandwagon, and perhaps many of you still are about to do that very thing. Well, before you do, allow me to share a bit more with you.

A team isn't just good because of the talent they have. They are also good because of the coaching staff that guides and trains that team and that calls the plays, defensive schemes, etc. The most important part of this process is the guy who is at the wheel: the head coach.

Let's examine Houston Nutt's record and tendencies over the years as an SEC head coach.

Over the course of the last eleven years, Nutt's average record is 8-5. He has won more than eight in five of his eleven seasons, eight or less in six of those seasons.

Generally speaking and on average, he starts his seasons out going 2-2, then goes 3-2, then 3-1. I have to wonder why his teams always seem to start slow. It would seem that if you are always depending upon pulling a "rabbit out of your hat" at the end of the season in order to have a strong finish, eventually, it will catch up with you.

One has to admit that Ole Miss winning six in a row during the last half of the season isn't something that Ole Miss fans should count on happening every year. That was an aberration, as they were just 3-4 prior to going on that run.

Another thing to keep in mind is that teams coached by Houston Nutt from Dec. 1 through the January bowl games are just 3-8 over his eleven years as a head coach.

I guess it is difficult to be focused during the holidays.

Here is a little more for your consumption so you can make your own decision about the upcoming season.

When Nutt's teams face an SEC team after having played a Div II or FCS team, he is 8-7 (.533) when playing those games at home and 8-2 (.800) when playing on the road.

His teams are 25-19 (.568) when playing BCS level teams at home and 25-31(.446) when playing BCS teams on the road.

In weeks that his team plays consecutive SEC games he is 19-11 (.633) at home and 12-22 (.353) on the road, or 31-33 (.484) overall. This is why you see him spreading the "gimme games" throughout the season. Back-to-back-to-back SEC games are schedule killers.

Nutt seems to like taking a "bye week" prior to an away game vs. a BCS level opponent and it shows over those eleven years, though it seems to have done his teams little good.

His record after a bye week when playing at home is 2-2 (.500) and on the road it is 6-13 (.316), making his teams 8-15 (.348) overall. It is a good thing for Ole Miss fans that they have no bye weeks this year prior to playing a BCS-caliber team.

Add to all of this the fact that in every single season since Nutt has been a SEC head coach, he has managed to somehow lose two SEC games in a row.

This includes last season when he lost back-to-back SEC games to South Carolina and Alabama. When will that ugly trend rear its head in the coming season? I believe it will be somewhere between the three games they play in a row against S. Carolina, Vanderbilt and Alabama. 

Bottom line here is that all of the "hoopla" is going to leave a great many of the Ole Miss faithful disappointed and a good many of the media jumping ship by midseason.

Ole Miss will have a good season...for Ole Miss. But the Red Sea isn't going to part again,  and you aren't going to be delivered.

Houston Nutt will give you a couple of eight- or nine-win seasons, followed by two or three seasons with six or less victories, and then another couple of years of eight or nine wins...

And that is just how the seasons will progress.

But if I wanted to have a decent year this year, I would petition Sports Illustrated to not feature Ole Miss on their cover.

That's just my view, from outside the boundaries.

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