Saturday, August 29, 2009

CFI Countdown: #13 Mississippi Rebels

2008 Record: 9-4 (SEC 5-3)
Bowl Game: Won Cotton Bowl vs. Texas Tech 47-34
Location: Oxford, Mississippi
Stadium: Vaught-Hemingway Stadium (60,580)
Head Coach: Houston Nutt
Overall: 120-74 (17th season)
@ Ole Miss 9-4 (2nd season)

Link to Ole Miss Football Page

In case you didn’t realize Houston Nutt knew how to coach…now you do. Nutt came over from Arkansas and took over an Ole Miss squad that was 14-32 since they won 10 games in 2003, including a 3-9 campaign in 2007. Under Nutt, they turned it around much quicker than anyone expected going 9-4 in 2008. If you are wondering what the fuss is about with the 2009 Rebels—they won their final six games of last season including a Cotton Bowl victory over Texas Tech, so there is cause for optimism. Oh, they were also the only team last year to knock off the eventual champion Florida Gators.

When the Rebels Have the Ball

Offensive Coordinator: Kent Austin (2nd season)
Scheme: Pro Style
Starters Returning: Six
Key Losses: OT Michael Oher, WR Mike Wallace, FB Jason Cook, OG Maurice Miller, LB Tony Fein

It’s no secret why things began to click for the Rebels last season—his name is Jevan Snead. The former Longhorn was a little rusty, throwing seven interceptions in their first six games, but once he got going he was tough to slow down. Snead has an NFL arm and is big time prospect. This is just his second season as a full-time starter at the college level so the best is yet to come, which is what has so many people excited about this Ole Miss squad. When Snead isn’t lined up behind center it’s because Coach Nutt is up to his old tricks, lining up wide out/running back Dexter McCluster at quarterback to run the “Wild Rebel” as he did with Darren McFadden back at Arkansas. McCluster is the quintessential all-purpose player having spent significant time at running back and receiver, in addition to dabbling at quarterback. While he didn’t complete a pass (five attempts), McCluster is tied with the most receptions among returning Rebels and is their leading returning rusher—he’s very dynamic with the football in his hands. The primary ball carrier this season figures to be sophomore Brandon Bolden who was impressive in the Cotton Bowl, with senior Cordera Eason providing relief if necessary in what is a deep backfield. Lining up outside along with McCluster is fellow senior Shay Hodge, who is sure-handed and knows how to get into the end zone. Center Daverin Geralds and tackle John Jerry—returning senior starters—should be two of the better linemen in the SEC, but the other spots are in question right now. Replacing a left tackle such as Michael Oher is easier said than done.

Top Pro Prospects: 1 QB Jevan Snead (JR), 2) OG John Jerry (SR), 3) OT Dexter McCluster (SR)

When the Other Team Has the Ball

Defensive Coordinator: Tyrone Nix (2nd season)
Scheme: 4-3/4-2-5
Starters Returning: Eight
Key Losses: DT Peria Jerry, LB Ashlee Palmer, S Jamarca Sanford

Like Oher, replacing a disruptive force like Peria Jerry at defensive tackle is going to be nearly impossible—guys like that just don’t grow on trees, even in SEC country. However, the Rebs do have a few things going for them on defense. They expect a bigger season from uber-talented defensive end Greg Hardy, and continued development from the likes of tackles Ted Laurent and Lawon Scott, as well as ends Marcus Tillman and Kentrall Lockett—four solid contributors from last year’s run. The wildcard is tackle Jerrell Powe, who to this point has been more myth than legend, but could be on the cusp of breaking out. At the next level of defense, one player sure to bust loose is WILL Patrick Trahan, who looked like a future All-SEC performer with the Auburn Tigers once upon a time. He has taken the long route—via Northwest Mississippi Community College—but he may get there yet. They return three of four DBs, but the way they struggled to stop the pass that may not be a good thing. Free safety Kendrick Lewis is solid, but the corners need to step up.

Top Pro Prospects: 1) DE Greg Hardy (SR), 2) DT Ted Laurent (JR), 3) FS Kendrick Lewis (SR)

The Schedule

The out of conference slate, which includes SE Louisiana, UAB, and Northern Arizona, is pretty close to creampuff city. The one game they shouldn’t overlook is the season opener against Memphis—even so it would be a pretty big upset if the Rebels were to lose that one. The reality is that playing a pair of FCS schools could end up hurting them in the long run. They don’t face any ranked teams on the road, but any road trip in the SEC can be tough—Vanderbilt, Auburn, South Carolina, and even in-state rival Mississippi St. can’t be overlooked. It does work out well for Nutt and company that West favorite Alabama and perennial power LSU both come to Dixieland. Those games will likely decide who plays for the SEC title.

Pivotal Point

It’s on the shoulders, or should we say arm, of Jevan Snead. As much as Houston Nutt has done a great job, and although they have plenty of speed on both sides of the ball and depth along the defensive line, it all comes down to the play of Snead. In Ole Miss’ wins, Snead threw 20 touchdowns to six interceptions. In their losses, his touchdowns dropped to six and interceptions rose to seven. Listen to opposing coaches speak about the Rebels and the first thing they mention is the quarterback—the kid is something special. In fact, some might not think it’s the craziest thing in the world if Snead ends up as the first-team signal caller in the SEC. Ironically, had Vince Young stayed in Texas for his senior year, Snead may have remained a Longhorn. But Young left early, and a red-shirt freshman named Colt McCoy took hold of the starting job and wasn’t going to let it go.

CFI Final Analysis

A year ago the Rebels entered the season quietly and were able to sneak up on people. What was impressive was how they played at Alabama (24-20 loss), at LSU (31-13 win) and in the Cotton Bowl versus 11-1 Texas Tech (47-34 win) even after people started to take notice. Now the spotlight is really on them—we’re talking magazine covers and top-five predictions. Mississippi is ready to take the next step; whether or not that means a trip to the SEC Championship game remains to be seen. It may be a stretch to say that a club which was 0-8 in SEC play just two years ago is supposed to surpass ‘Bama and the Bayou Bengals, but it’s impressive that people are even thinking it.

College Football Insiders Top 25 Countdown:

The Next 25 (26-50) Plus 18 Bowl Teams
#25 West Virginia Mounainteers
#24 Tennessee Volunteers
#23 Clemson Tigers
#22 Pittsburgh Panthers
#21 Michigan St. Spartans
#20 Utah Utes
#19 Oregon Ducks
#18 Florida St. Seminoles
#17 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
#16 Boise St. Broncos
#15 North Carolina Tar Heels
#14 Penn St. Nittany Lions

Photos Courtesy of SEC Sports Media