November 2, 2010 7:40:00 AM
OXFORD -- The Southeastern Conference''s Western Division might be the toughest in all of college football.
Five of the six teams are ranked. Auburn''s No. 1 in the BCS standings. The University of Alabama remains one of the nation''s top teams and the defending national champion. LSU, Arkansas and Mississippi State all have big wins.
Ole Miss is the one albatross looking up to them all. The one team not like the others.
"We never, never expected to be in this position in November," coach Houston Nutt said with a grimace. "We had much different plans."
But those plans continued to fade last weekend, when No. 3 Auburn thumped the Rebels 51-31 at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in a game that wasn''t particularly close. The Rebels (3-5, 1-4 SEC) have lost three straight and are firmly entrenched in the Western Division basement.
There''s plenty of reasons for that, mainly a defense that''s been historically bad. Ole Miss has given up 275 points through eight games (34.4 per game), which is the most for the program since 1915. It''s also the worst in the SEC by a wide margin this season.
Defensive end LaMark Armour -- a 23-year-old who''s in his sixth year with the program -- has seen some very good and very bad teams during his time with the Rebels. He said talent hasn''t ever been the main issue.
"It''s the little things, man," Armour said. "We''re always shooting ourselves in the foot. Right now we''re just beating ourselves. That''s the only thing that hurts. If we can just move forward and quit beating ourselves we can get out of this situation."
That situation looks like this: Ole Miss must win three of its next four games to become bowl eligible for the third straight season. The Rebels host Louisiana-Lafayette on Saturday, then face Tennessee, LSU and Mississippi State over the final three weeks.
It''s a challenging stretch, but three wins shouldn''t be impossible. For it to happen, Nutt knows things must change -- especially on defense.
"Those little things that we''ve been so accustomed to doing just right -- you have to get back to that," Nutt said. "From alignment, to stance, no false starts, where your eyes are. All those little things. You just can''t make excuses. Let''s give Auburn credit -- they''re a good football team. But I think we helped them."
The Rebels should have the opportunity to fix some things against Louisiana-Lafayette (2-6), a team''s that''s struggled in the Sun Belt this season and is giving up nearly 40 points per game.
But if Ole Miss has learned anything this season, it''s to not take an opponent for granted. One reason the Rebels find themselves in their current predicament is a stunning loss to Jacksonville State -- a team from the Football Championship Subdivision -- in the season opener.
"I''m going to prepare for this game just like it''s Alabama," McGee said. "We''re in no shape to act like we can overlook somebody."
The good news for the Rebels is their offense continues to play well, averaging 31.4 points per game. They''re rushing for 212 yards per game -- good for third in the league -- despite a constant shuffling along the offensive line because of injuries.
Nutt was proud of several freshmen and sophomores along the offensive line who have emerged to help the offense. Considering all of them should return next season, the future looks promising.
But Nutt is more worried about the present. He''s still convinced this season is worth saving.
"It''s up to us now," Nutt said. "We''ve got to change it. We can''t stand losing and I never want our guys to get used to that. It''s unacceptable. You''ve got to fight, reach down and focus."