July 24, 2010 10:20:00 PM
Adam Minichino - [email protected]
HOOVER, Ala. -- Expectations did their best to crush the University of Mississippi football team''s season in 2009.
Imagine coach Houston Nutt''s horror last year when he was asked if his team could have a successful season if it didn''t go to Atlanta, the site of the Southeastern Conference Championship game.
Nutt did his best to downplay the hype surrounding the Rebels. He said Ole Miss was still building a program and teaching its players how to win. The lessons went well, as the Rebels rallied from a 3-4 start to win their final six games, which included a victory against Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl.
But all of that promise vanished in the third game of the season, a humbling 16-10 loss to South Carolina in Columbia, S.C. The loss knocked Ole Miss from its lofty perch at No. 4 in the nation.
Two games later, Alabama all but ended Ole Miss'' title dreams with a 22-3 victory in Oxford.
The final record (9-4) looked even more confusing after you factored in a 41-27 loss to Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl and a 21-7 win against Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl.
That Nutt has helped guide the Rebels to their first consecutive nine-win seasons since 1961-62 and their first back-to-back January bowl victories since 1960-61 seemed to have been lost on a fan base that had been so energized in July.
This season, Nutt hopes the stealth approach will work.
On Friday, members of the media picked Ole Miss to finish last in the SEC Western Division. Although the Rebels received three first-place votes, they were looking up at everyone including the MSU Bulldogs, who were picked to finish fifth.
Nutt has been doing this long enough to know polls aren''t worth the paper they''re printed on. He acknowledged that fact Friday and then thanked everyone for lowering expectations and making this a no-lose season.
It''s hard to deny Ole Miss looks like a last-place team. The Rebels will have to find a way to replace All-SEC standouts Dexter McCluster, who had 1,717 total yards, and Shay Hodge, who had 70 catches for 1,135 yards, and quarterback Jevan Snead, who left school a year early after a disappointing season that saw him throw 20 touchdowns and 20 interceptions.
The Rebels also will have to find a way to replace defensive stalwarts like Greg Hardy, Marshay Green, Cassius Vaughn, and Kendrick Lewis.
But sometimes a team does its best work when no one is looking. That''s what Nutt hopes will happen, especially with a schedule that features four home games in the first five dates. A lineup of Jacksonville State, Tulane, Vanderbilt, Fresno State, and Kentucky could help the Rebels go 5-0 before they travel to Tuscaloosa, Ala., for an Oct. 16 matchup.
Ole Miss then will travel to Arkansas on Oct. 23. A loss in that game would send the Rebels'' hopes crashing back to reality.
But let''s not get ahead of ourselves.
Jerrell Powe, Bradley Sowell, and Kentrell Lockett, Ole Miss'' representatives Friday at SEC Media Days, talked about how the Rebels don''t care what anybody expects them to do. They''re focused on throwing their weight around and pushing the bodies out of the way.
Sowell, a junior tackle, said the offensive line will do its best to find replacements at center and at guard to protect quarterbacks Nathan Stanley or Randall Mackey. He said the key to success on offense will be picking up blitzes and creating holes for a new cast of running backs
"(Our identity) is going to be physicality," Sowell said. "We''re going to have a good D line. As you see today, we brought three linemen. We''re a big team this year. We have to block for our new guys and we have to tackle on defense. We''re going to have to be physical up front. We''re going to have to be one of those old-school teams."
Powe enjoys that kind of thinking. Once a robust 383 pounds when he first gained his eligibility at Ole Miss, the Wayne County High School product is down to a svelte 316 pounds. The preseason first-team All-SEC performer will attract a lot of attention from defenses and NFL scouts this season, but that''s OK. He has persevered through hardships for the past few years in Oxford, and he is eager to be part of a unit that has the potential to be even better than the 2009 unit that was fourth in the SEC in total defense.
"I think the defense definitely can be really good this year, and that we can raise a lot of eyebrows across the country." Powe said. "We have a great front seven."
Nutt admits to being concerned about finding dependable starters in the middle of the offensive line. He likely is a little more worried today about his depth at quarterback. On Friday, Nutt didn''t know if redshirt freshman Raymond Cotton was going to stay in Oxford, but he said he hoped he would.
On Saturday, Ole Miss issued a press release that said Cotton has decided to leave the program. That move leaves former East Mississippi Community College All-America quarterback Randall Mackey as the backup.
That''s exciting news because Mackey has the arm and the dazzle to make things happen all over the field, much like McCluster.
Nutt said Friday that Mackey has "escape-ability", but he isn''t sure how much playing time he will see. He said earlier this year that junior college players typically don''t make an impact in the SEC in their first season.
It wouldn''t be surprising to see Mackey be a difference-maker. After all, Nutt needs a game-breaker and is apt to break out a new version of the "Wild Rebel" to suit Mackey''s skills.
If that happens, it would be an ideal way for Ole Miss to prove the skeptics wrong, and an ideal way to erase the memory of all the expectations that weren''t realized in 2009.
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. He can be reached at: [email protected]
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.