Throughout August, we will be counting down the top 25 teams (as listed here) going into the 2009 season.  Today, we take a trip to The Grove, a place that boasts pretty girls with southern drawls, sun dresses, and which Dan Rubenstein contends is one of the greatest places on the planet.  We’ll just have to take his word for it.

(Photo by Stu in Tuscaloosa)

First Impressions

In the days leading up to the 2009 college football season, Ole Miss was pegged as this year’s darkhorse contender by a number of experts.  Just a few weeks ago, Phil Steele mentioned on our program the possibility of Ole Miss having a bang-up season and potentially making a run at the SEC or national title.  Lofty praise to say the least.  Both polls, thus far, have agreed that the Rebels are a force with which to be reckoned, and Houston Nutt is poised to electrify the south with Jevan Snead and his tricky “Wild Rebel” offense in his second year in Oxford.

As EDSBS’s Spencer Hall put it while guest-hosting The Solid Verbal, “Houston Nutt is crazier than a sack of weasels.”  And, in large part, that’s why Ole Miss could be so dangerous in 2009.  Nutt has always had unpredictability and crazy formations on his side — now he’s got 16 returning starters and as favorable a home schedule as you could ever hope to have in the SEC.  Let’s see if Ole Miss is for real.

Last Year

Houston Nutt arrived at Ole Miss and instantly improved the offense.  His main weapon was Jevan Snead, who threw for 26 touchdowns and almost 2,800 yards.  His secondary attack featured a three-headed monster on the ground in the form of WR Dexter McCluster, RB Cordera Eason, and RB Brandon Bolden, all of whom rushed for more than 500 yards.  His group of receivers (including McCuster, obviously) showed the same level of balance, with three receivers gaining more than 600 yards on the season.  Collectively, this lead to an average of 32.1 points per game in 2008, up 12 points from 2007.  Likewise, the Rebels’ total offense went up by more than 60 yards per game, which lead to a 9-4 record, including a Cotton Bowl victory over then-No. 8 Texas Tech.

But there weren’t just improvements on offense.  Ole Miss improved its defense by almost 120 yards and 10 points per game.  Opponents averaged less than 100 yards rushing against a tough Rebel front, which also logged more sacks (38) than any Ole Miss team thus far this decade.

The Rebels’ M.O. in ’08, at least at the start of the season, was inconsistency.  Losses against Wake Forest and Vanderbilt didn’t seem to add up, especially after this team knocked off Florida in Gainesville only a few weeks later.  But after a tough loss in Tuscaloosa, the Rebels hit their stride, rattling off six straight wins and marching into 2009 with high expectations.

People

You already know about Jevan Snead, Cordera Eason, Brandon Bolden, and Dexter McCluster.  This year, you’ll learn about them, as well as highly-touted freshman WR Pat Patterson.  This offense figures to pack a powerful punch behind an offensive line that averages 332 lbs, which is third in the NCAA.

Defensively, safety Kendrick Lewis returns for his senior season after a great 2008 campaign in which he led the Rebels with 85 tackles.  But he’s not the only returner.  Ole Miss brings back seven other defensive starters, including Kentrell Lockett, Ted Laurent, Macus Tillman, Jonathan Cornell, Allen Walker, Marshay Green and Cassius Vaughn.  This defense will be experienced to say the least — starting all juniors and seniors (at least according to early projections).

This Year

Mississippi’s road schedule features the following juggernauts: Memphis, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Auburn, and Mississippi State.  That’s it.  In addition to dodging Florida, the Rebels figure to have three difficult SEC games against Alabama, Tennessee and LSU, all of which will be played in Oxford.  Arkansas could be a sneaky game as the Hogs played Ole Miss tight last season, but it wouldn’t appear as though there are more than two or three losses on their schedule.  At least not on paper.

Conclusions

For as promising as Ole Miss seems to be with 16 returning starters, you have to wonder if the hype can be transformed into legitimate performance.  We know that Mississippi’s offense will be one of the most experienced in the SEC, and should improve upon last year’s 32.1 points per game.  We know that this defense is ready to take a big step forward.  But we don’t know how much of this hype is warranted.  The games aren’t played on paper, and if any conference has taught us that in recent years, it’s the SEC.

It would be fantastic to see a team like Ole Miss throw its hat in the SEC circus and take the West division.  A new team in the mix would be an exciting wrinkle.  But the question remains: How much do you really trust Houston Nutt?

Prediction

10-2

Game Highlights Set To Symphony Music

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3szJTBxq0BE

–Ty