Thursday, August 20

Ole Miss '09: GIGGITY

The 2008 Season in a Box
Last year was just about the best possible scenario for Ole Miss, not only emerging from the desert of sub-.500 seasons but blowing the doors off of mediocrity to the tune of a 9-4 record. Since we’re already aboard the metaphor train at this point, Ole Miss just got a surprise gift from one of their friends they haven’t seen since high school. Considering how badly they spurned David Cutcliffe at the end of his era, they should be lucky that guy is even talking to them at this point. It was a joyous reunion and a step in a much-needed direction in Oxford if they wanted to have a chance of ditching the demons they awoke with the unceremonious dumping of Cutcliffe.

Why Should This Season Be Any Different?
Well, this time they’re not sneaking up on anyone for starters. Expectations are about 12 steps past sky-high (this is the first time I can remember the Rebels opening the season in the top 5 in …pretty much ever), so there’s always the chance that the team wilts under the pressure. This is the second year of Nutt’s schemes with this team, too – there should be some improvement based on that alone. More than anything else, nearly all the key players from last year’s team return (including nearly all the skill players) – generally speaking when that happens, everyone thinks that all the guys will get better. All things considered, this team should be different and they should be better than they were last year. Whether that justifies the hype remains to be seen.

On Offense
So the funny thing is that while everyone and their brother knows about Jevan Snead, Ole Miss’ offense still ran the ball 60.6% of the time. Sure, some of those runs were probably QB scrambles, but that won’t get play distribution to anywhere near average. Houston Nutt’s teams typically thrive on the run play, and they’ll have more than one back when things are going well – we don’t already forget the halcyon days of McFadden/Jones, do we? However, it came with a bit of a curveball last year; WR Dexter McCluster actually led the team in yardage (and yards per carry) last season. I’m not totally sold that’ll last this season (in short, we should see another player emerge as a legitimate RB) – I didn’t see quite enough Rebel ball to get a feel for if McCluster runs were designed to operate the way they did, but he had more than a few games where he rushed for over 10 yards, which tells me it was at least kind of intentional.

Whether that continues this year depends on if Enrique Davis is ready to assume the mantle of RB of the future. Cordera Eason will likely still be RB1 (his 140 carries did lead the team) and that shouldn’t change, but Davis should be able to jump Brandon Bolden on the depth chart. They’re of similar size and build, but Davis was the much, much more talented and heralded recruit out of high school – the problem was that he never learned to pass block. If he can jump Bolden as emerge as a 1A to Eason’s 1, then McCluster may also see his carries go down a bit. If he just ends up as a 2, then McCluster will be fine. As it is, I can see McCluster still getting 8-9 touches a game (quite frankly, Nutt thinks he’s explosive enough to warrant that at least based on past performance), but if Eason and Davis get 20-25 between them, then Nutt – and the Rebels – will be happy campers. Of course, with all this being said somehow Bolden has emerged as the starter, which is proof that Nutt's batshit - or I am.

None of this discussion is meant to marginalize Snead’s role within the offense; Snead is the most talented QB Nutt’s had to work with since Matt Jones and may be the best pure passer he’s had (better than Clint Stoerner), which means the passing game is the most dynamic attack Nutt has had in …probably ever. Snead’s still a junior, so his numbers (56% completion percentage, about 2,750 yards, 26/13 TD/INT) should improve slightly, although the smart money is on the completion percentage going up and the interceptions going down. I’d be surprised if the yardage changed substantially, simply because 3,000 yards is going to be the natural peak for anyone running Nutt’s offense. There aren’t enough opportunities to suggest otherwise at this point.

The semi-ironic part of the Rebel passing offense is that the WRs have either talented or a solid track record. Not only did McCluster lead the team in rushing last year, but he also was third on the team in yards, too – Shay Hodge was also ahead of him, beating him in all three major categories (yards, yards per reception, TDs). The now-departed Mike Wallace trumped both of them, though. Fortunately, the Rebels have a new highly-regarded talent in incoming WR Pat Patterson and WR Markeith Summers is only a junior. I don’t think the talent is there to have a true 3-WR offense like the Rebels had most of last year – there’s one heck of a drop-off between McCluster’s 625 yards receiving and WR Lionel Breaux’s 178, which was 4th on the team – but Hodge and McCluster are the unquestioned 1-2 WR combo. If Patterson, Summers, and Breaux can get near 1,000 yards between them, then the passing game won’t have any regression at all.

At this point, we should know what offense Nutt’s going to run: run-heavy with a fair amount of 3-WR sets and some non-QB play receiving the ball (they’re calling it the Wild Rebel this time). McCluster should set up as the point man for the Wild Rebel again this season, and since Nutt’s general idea is the more players running the ball the merrier, get used to it. The offense should be better by all rights; Wallace is the only significant loss, and there are enough players available to make up the production gap. The biggest question mark is going to be on the line, since they lose star LT Michael Oher (coming soon to a theater near you- get up in arms over the movie somewhere else, since I’m not paying attention at this point) and may break in a true freshman at that position. Fortunately, practicing against Greg Hardy may get him to grow up a bit.

On Defense and Special Teams
Let’s start with the bad news first: the Rebels lost four of their top five tacklers from last season, including 1st-round draft pick Peria Jerry. However, most of the guys they lost didn’t have a huge impact aside from serving as tackling dummies (yes, Jamarca Sanford was a draft pick too, but still). Now, other than those guys the defense is back in force, and that includes noted sack artist Greg Hardy (who had 8.5 sacks in limited action after missing the first three games). The defensive line is the unquestioned beast of the defensive unit – Greg Hardy as a non-starter should be a clear tipoff.

The rest of the defense should be good, but not great; everyone’s only replacing one starter so that helps, but there aren’t any world-beaters among those returning. FS Kendrick Lewis is the closest guy to a star the Rebels have on the rest of the roster, and he’s not quite the guy to be tabbed as the second-best player on the defensive unit. Still, the secondary and LB corps put up decent numbers last year and should be expected to do something similar this season. They’ll look a bit better than they would on their own thanks to the defensive line. This may end up falling just short of what a typical championship-caliber defense should be; if they do pursue the path of a champion, not only does Lewis need to have his best season yet, but either CB Cassius Vaughn or CB Marshay Green needs to emerge as a shutdown corner and either LB Jonthan Cornell or LB Allen Walker needs to turn into a giant tackling dummy.

On the other hand, K Joshua Shene is one of the best in the SEC; he’s pretty much automatic at anything inside 40 yards, which should be the province of this offense most of the time. Justin Sparks moves from kickoff specialist to punter as well; while it’s technically new for him, he should do well enough. The return games will be interesting; Marshay Green will return as the punt returner but there’s a gap in kickoff returns; maybe Pat Patterson or Enrique Davis can step in.

So What’s Their Bowl Game?
They’re national title contenders for a reason: they came on like wildfire at the end last year and pretty much dismantled Big 12 South winner Texas Tech (what, they tied Texas and Oklahoma too – you make your generalizations, I’ll make mine). With most of the troops back – and what isn’t back replaced – they’re in great shape. Of course, expectations are sky-high when your toughest road game is South Carolina. They get all the major SEC West contenders are home and don’t really play anyone of note from the East, unless you count a home game against Tennessee as “of note”, and expectations for those teams aren’t even on the same planet. While they may not quite be good enough to get through their entire schedule unscathed – I think they’re in for a nasty surprise against Alabama, who isn’t close to the talent level of anyone they play prior – at 11-1, they can still be in the running for the SEC Championship Game if things break right. They’ve got a decent shot at a BCS bowl either way, and if not a return trip to the Cotton Bowl (or the Capital One Bowl) will still be one of the better two-year runs in Rebel history.

Now, if they get past Alabama then the sky’s the limit – Sugar Bowl or BCS Championship Game ahoy. LSU is the second-toughest team on the normal schedule, and we’ll just assume they’d have to navigate Florida to make it all the way. That … that may be easier said than done.