Ole Miss a Product of the "Hype Machine" No More

Ben Garrett@benwgarrettCorrespondent ISeptember 25, 2009

COLUMBIA, SC - SEPTEMBER 24: Head coach of the Mississippi Rebels, Houston Nutt, watches his team warm up for their game against the South Carolina Gamecocks at Williams-Brice Stadium on September 24, 2009 in Columbia, South Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Be honest: Were you surprised by South Carolina's 16-10 upset of No. 4 Ole Miss last night?

Sure, you picked the favored Rebels in your pick'em pool, just to be safe. But by the time South Carolina took a 16-3 lead to the fourth quarter, you had already accepted that the Gamecocks were going to spring the upset.

Last night's game lacked the usual punch of an unranked team's upset of a top five opponent because, deep down, we all knew it was coming. Maybe it wouldn't be South Carolina. Maybe it would be Arkansas. Maybe Tennessee. But somebody would defeat the Rebs who wasn't supposed to.

I decided not to play it safe; I picked South Carolina in my pick'em league. So did five of the other 26 members of the pool. That might've been the biggest unranked vs. top five upset consensus in the history of our pool.

It isn't as if we decided to venture into the realm of the unthinkable. Ole Miss became the third top five team to fall in as many weeks, but is it really fair to go there? This wasn't a Washington over USC upset. It wasn't even a BYU over Oklahoma upset.

So, the next question: If we all knew it was coming, how did Ole Miss enter the season as a top 10 team? Surely it isn't because they beat Florida last year. Or because they won a bowl game. Rankings aren't based on what you accomplished a year before...are they?

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In theory, perhaps not. In reality? Well, the college football hype machine skews reality.

Powering the hype machine are the ESPNs, the Sports Illustrateds, and the rest of the mainstream sports media. Fueling it is all of us.

College football fans love us a feel-good story. Whether it's a blue-collar defensive guy winning the Heisman Trophy over the always favored Southern quarterback, a la Charles Woodson in 1997, or the ghost of Knute Rockne rising up to lead Notre Dame back to the promised land of national championships (and thus justifying the Irish's often bloated poll rankings), we thrive on the feel-good stuff. We feed on it.

And what is more feel-good than Ole Miss, a team that hadn't been ranked this high in nearly 40 years and was the only team to defeat last year's national champs? Or Houston Nutt, truly one of coaching's good guys, finding success after laboring through the wilderness for a decade before Arkansas finally ran him off? Or Jevan Snead, whose biggest distinction is that he's a standout SEC quarterback who isn't Tim Tebow?

And so we sit in sports bars and around our HDTVs and we say, "Boy, that Ole Miss team, they return a lot of guys next year. Yeah, they lose an all-American on offense and an all-American on defense. And, yeah, they did lose to Vanderbilt, and they did lose to South Carolina. But they beat Florida." And, by and by, the first preseason polls are released, and there is Ole Miss in the top 10.

The hype machine churns out another success story.

That hype machine has a funny tendency. It can turn on you at the drop of a hat. By the time Snead's fourth down pass fell incomplete with just over a minute remaining, giving South Carolina its first-ever win over a top five team in Columbia, the same people who had built Ole Miss up busied themselves with the task of tearing them down.

Sports Illustrated declared that Ole Miss "instantly went from title contender to heavy underdog." ESPN's Bruce Feldman added that the Rebels "were not ready for prime time."

It's true. Ole Miss clearly wasn't ready to compete with the bullies of its own half of the SEC, let alone dream of a repeat upset of Florida in the SEC Championship Game. Indeed, the Ole Miss we saw last night will struggle to beat Auburn, maybe even Vanderbilt. Beating Alabama? That would be an upset, based on where things now stand.

If there's a benefit to all the criticism Ole Miss has seen in the aftermath of South Carolina's win, it is that it sets up Houston Nutt to work some Houston Nutt magic. He's been here before. If Nutt's 11-year tenure in the SEC has taught us anything, it is that his teams have a tendency for choking away games they should've won—and they have a penchant for winning when least expected.

Like his first Ole Miss team, Nutt's first Arkansas team was an overachiever. Picked to finish last in the SEC West in 1998, the Hogs wound up with a 9-3 record and a share of the division championship. Nutt's team tore through the regular season until they "stumbled and fumbled" against eventual national champion Tennessee.

Expectations were sky-high the next season, but a quick loss ended the Razorbacks' title hopes.

Sound familiar?

Arkansas were able to avenge the Tennessee loss in 1999, but Nutt was never quite able to recapture the magic of his inaugural season in Fayetteville.

But he had his moments. In 2002, Arkansas stumbled early but then scored an unexpected win at LSU—the Miracle on Markham—to earn a berth in the SEC Championship Game. The following season, there was a shocking upset of No. 5 Texas.

In 2006, with fans clamoring for Nutt's dismissal, the Hogs opened with a 50-14 home loss to USC and then recovered for an unexpected upset of No. 2 Auburn and wound up in the top 10 of the BCS standings.

Then in 2007, with the "fire Nutt" campaign in full steam after three consecutive conference losses, the Razorbacks shocked No. 1 (and eventual national champ) LSU in overtime.

If there is a pattern there, it is that Nutt wilts under expectations and thrives under criticism. If the past is any indication of the future, the beleaguered Snead will throw for 300 yards and three touchdowns against Alabama to resurrect his Heisman campaign, and Nutt's Rebels will shock the Tide and wind up in Atlanta in early December for their first-ever SEC Championship Game.

What would be more feel-good than that?


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