The Ole Miss Rebels football team is coming off its best season since Eli Manning was hurling the pigskin, after cruising to a 9-4 record while recording wins over National Champions Florida, 2007 National Champions LSU, and Big 12 South co-champion Texas Tech.
Heading into the 2009 SEC football season, head coach Houston Nutt and the Rebels have been pegged as a BCS contender and a dark horse National Champion contender.
Superstar quarterback Jevan Snead returns, along with several other key players from a prolific offense. The defense should be as good as any in the conference, anchored by a deep, talented, and aggressive defensive line.
Today, we continue with the fifth and sixth installments in our 2009 SEC football preview. To find all of our previews, follow the links below:
Key Losses: Fullback Jason Cook, wide receiver Mike Wallace, left tackle Michael Oher, defensive tackle Peria Jerry, and safety Jamarca Sanford
Returning Stars: Snead, running back Brandon Bolden, wide receiver Dexter McCluster, defensive end Greg Hardy, and linebacker Patrick Trahan
Top Recruits: Running back Darius Barksdale, wide receiver Patrick Patterson, offensive tackle Bobby Massie, defensive end Craig Drummond, and linebacker D.T. Shackleford
Weaknesses: It's tough to pinpoint a real weakness for the Rebels heading into the 2009 season, as Ole Miss returns most of their players at the key positions. The Rebels did finish dead last in the conference in pass defense last season, and it's certainly an area of concern for Nutt heading into the season.
The secondary should get plenty of help from a strong defensive line that will put pressure on the quarterback, but it's still up to them to make some plays. With the underrated Sanford gone, the Rebels will have some questions to answer in the secondary.
The other weakness for the Rebels could be on the offensive line. After losing two starters, and a key player and leader in Oher, the Rebels will have to get some new guys to step up and fill in those roles. If the offensive line can play as well as they did last season, the Rebels will be in great shape.
Finally, getting Snead to protect the ball consistently like he started to do towards the end of the year is imperative. Superstar McCluster must also work on not putting the ball on the turf.
Strengths: First and foremost, the Rebels return what should be one of the best defensive lines in college football, despite the loss of defensive tackle Jerry. Ole Miss will get great defensive end play from starters Kentrell Lockett and Marcus Tillman, and they will be backed up by the freakish athleticism of Hardy. Inside, the trio of Ted Laurent, Lawon Scott, and Jerrell Powe should be as powerful group up the middle as any in the conference.
Offensively, the Rebels couldn't be in much better shape heading into the season. They return all but one of their play makers at the skill position and have a quarterback that could turn out to be next in line to Manning as a first round NFL Draft pick.
The Rebels have a talented stable of running backs and all the confidence in the world after knocking off a few top ranked teams during the 2008 SEC football season. This is probably as talented a group top to bottom as Nutt has ever coached, and that becomes even more clear looking into the second string on the depth chart.
Key Games: Sept. 26 at South Carolina and Oct.10 vs. Alabama
The game against South Carolina will likely set the tone for the rest of the season for Ole Miss. The Gamecocks will be looking to answer some questions early on and make a statement that they are finally ready to take the next step in the Steve Spurrier era. Williams-Brice is never an easy place to play, especially on a Thursday night in front of a national television audience. A loss here could cripple the Rebels' BCS chances.
The game against Alabama doesn't need a whole lot of explanation. Simply put, this game will tell the Rebels, and the rest of the nation, whether or not they are ready to compete for an SEC title. If the Rebels come out and win this one, they'll be well on their way towards a potential rematch with Florida in the SEC Championship. If not, it might be a devastating enough loss to take Ole Miss out of the title hunt.
Best/Worst Case: Best case scenario for the Rebels is an undefeated season. We don't throw that around lightly here, so when we say that Ole Miss has the talent and the schedule to do it, we mean it. The key for Ole Miss is avoiding slip ups in games they aren't supposed to lose.
The notion that Nutt has a track record of losing games when he is the favorite has been hashed out over and over again, and we certainly aren't going to repeat it here. We'll just stick to our guns and tell you that Nutt has never had a squad this talented and this deep. A BCS run and an SEC Championship are certainly in the realm of possibilities for this Ole Miss team.
Worst case scenario for the Rebels is probably another four loss season and falling out of the SEC title race early with a loss to a team they have no business losing to.