After four straight losing seasons, hope abounds among Ole Miss fans that 2008 will be the season where the Rebels finally turn the corner.
Former Ole Miss head coach Ed Orgeron inherited a decent squad talent-wise for the 2005 season, but he could do no better than a 3-8 season. Then in 2006, due to a significant talent drop that can be attributed to several years of less than stellar recruiting by Orgeron's predecessor, David Cutcliffe, Orgeron was forced to use 17 true freshman while managing to slightly improve to 4-8. Last season, many thought Orgeron should improve to a five or six win season, but he again dipped to a three win season, which cost him is job.
New Rebel head coach Houston Nutt is the beneficiary of improved talent that Orgeron didn't have the luxury of and experts have noted that Nutt hasn't exactly inherited a bare cupboard. While that might be accurate, the cupboard isn't exactly overflowing with talent either.
There are some all-stars on the roster, like potential first round draft choice offensive lineman Michael Oher, and there's some budding talent like quarterback Jevan Snead, but much of the depth is inexperienced and either in the form of redshirt freshman that Orgeron recruited in 2007 or true freshmen signed by Nutt last February.
Still, the potential is there for the Rebels to squeak back into the winning ranks. Following are five major keys for having a winning record ...
First year contributors: Nutt has said he'll play freshmen if they're ready, and his 2008 signing class has the potential to have some impact players. One of the positions where he inherited a shortage of talent was at running back with the loss of back to back 1,000 yard rusher BenJarvus Green-Ellis with only two relatively inexperienced juniors on the roster. Nutt signed five-star running back Enrique Davis along with Brandon Bolden and Devin Thomas. All three have had good fall camps and appear set to contribute and their roles are likely to grow larger as the season progresses. Wide receiver Andrew Harris, junior college transfer Patrick Trahan, tight ends Ferbia Allen and E.J. Epperson, and defensive lineman Justin Smith are some names coming out of camp who could contribute this fall. In addition to Nutt's class, several redshirt freshman, like defensive lineman Justin Sanders and offensive lineman Bradley Sowell must step up to add depth to the team.
Jevan Snead: For the first time since the 2003 season, two things change at quarterback: 1) there's no quarterback controversy, and, 2) the Rebels will have a true SEC-caliber quarterback for the first time since Eli Manning was barking signals. Texas transfer Jevan Snead is firmly entrenched at the position; however, as a redshirt sophomore, he has something else in common with Manning when he took over in 2001 - a lot of potential but not a lot of experience. Snead should improve dramatically over the course of the season, but could be a bit rusty and his inexperience could show early on. Early in the season is exactly the time when the Rebels need to be logging some wins as the schedule gets progressively more difficult. Key for Snead will be his supporting cast - an experienced front line on offense, talented receivers, and a lot of potential in the backfield. Snead should not be required to strap the team on his back as Manning often had to do, and if he can stay injury free, he should blossom into one of he league's best quarterbacks.
Early season success: One of the key reasons for Orgeron's demise was the failure of the team to win early in the season, losing winnable games to the likes of Vanderbilt (twice), Wyoming, Wake Forest and letting Alabama off the ropes three times (three straight three point losses). Often, by the time his young teams had gained experience headed into the middle of the SEC schedule when teams like Arkansas, Alabama, and Auburn came up on the schedule, the team was already well headed toward losing seasons. Ole Miss has the chance of going 4-0 headed into the Florida game on Sept. 27, with Memphis, Wake Forest, Samford and Vanderbilt up first on the schedule. While the road game to Winston-Salem should be the biggest challenge of the four, the Demon Deacons have to replace six starters on offense and may not be the same threat as they were when they won 11 games in 2006 or nine last year. In order to have a winning season, key will be no slip-ups in games where Ole Miss should be favored, especially early in the season.
Special teams: Probably no game defined recurring special teams fiascos more so than the Rebels loss to Mississippi State last year. The Rebels permitted punt or kick off returns for touchdowns in both of their last two games last season. However, what probably hurt Ole Miss even more than touchdown returns, was routinely kicking kick-offs short and allowing the opposition field position near midfield on seemingly every play. Justin Sparks was ranked No. 76 among punters, the Rebels were ranked No. 95 among 119 Division I teams in punt returns and No. 57 in kick returns - all areas that could use improvement. However, key will be avoiding giving the opposition a short field on kick returns and to seen former freshman All-American Josh Shene return to form after struggling during his sophomore season.
Injuries: There's probably no better example of what injuries can do to a team than to look at Rebel defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix's defense at South Carolina last season. Nix's defense held an explosive Georgia offense to just 12 points (four field goals) and 341 yards early in the season in a 16-12 Gamecock win. Fast forward almost two months after his defense was decimated with injuries, and it gave up 651 yards and 48 points to Arkansas. Ole Miss is already on track to be short defensive linemen for the opener against Memphis with the loss of Greg Hardy (stress fracture of his foot) and Peria Jerry (knee injury); however, the good news is that no player has been lost for the season. The Rebels do not have the luxury of having the depth at several positions to lose players to injuries. Staying relatively injury free will be another huge key to a winning season.
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