Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Ole Miss Preview: What A Difference One Season Makes

The Ole Miss Rebels enter the 2010 season in a much different place than a year ago. Last August, Houston Nutt's team was a popular pick to win the West and even the SEC. The returning starters were there, the schedule was there, but it all fell apart in Columbia on a Thursday night in late September.

Did Ole Miss fans enjoy this off season more or less without the hype? How is former Oregon QB Jeremiah Masoli going to fit in Oxford? And does the Egg Bowl have more spice this year after Dan Mullen's comments?

To get a better look at Ole Miss, I contacted Jeb Williamson an Ole Miss Featured Columnist on Bleacher Report.

Q: Compare this off season with that of last year's where Ole Miss was a chic SEC Champion pick.

A: If you were to poll the fanbase, I think an overwhelming majority would prefer this year's off season to last year's for a myriad of reasons, the simplest of which is how easy it is to buy into the idea - true or not - that Nutt's teams always perform better when no one expects them to.

The South Carolina game was a bitter pill that soured the rest of what was a good season for the Rebels. Everything from that point was still on the downside of the mountain, and there was almost a collective slumping of the shoulders through the rest of the year.

There was no news last off season at all; just varied themes on "this is the year" all summer long. In contrast, this off season has been a circus: the anomaly of a July recruiting surge, the 2009 recruiting class taking some more hits, and the Masoli affair.

The volatility of the last few weeks has really put a charge into the program, and regardless of how everything works out, the overall state of the program is perceived to be swinging upwards. The caveat is Masoli. If Masoli is not in Oxford I am not sure how upbeat fans would be about this season.

Q: Does the fact that new OC Dave Radar has been out of football for a few years make the fan base nervous?

A: It does to the extent that there have been games in the last two year's where the Rebels were beaten on the blackboard; that Nutt and his staff may have been a bit myopic in developing a game plan and walked on the field with a limited number of options on offense.

I have never heard anyone accuse Rader of being an "outside the box" offensive mind, so I think there is some apprehension that maybe someone a little more dynamic in the position might have been beneficial to the playbook. Nutt is going to call the plays, as he always has, so any rust on Rader is likely to go unnoticed schematically.

Ultimately, Rader was brought in to develop quarterbacks, particularly Nathan Stanley. If you look at Rader's history you see game managers at the quarterback position. Ferrotte, Croyle...those weren't guys that were going to go out and beat you down from the pocket, but they also rarely did anything to beat themselves.

Turning the ball over has been the Achilles Heel of the Ole Miss offense the last couple of seasons, and I do not know anyone who does not think Jevan Snead digressed last year. Rader is going to be judged on how well his QB's protect the ball and making sure the mistakes made early in the season are not still problematic towards the end.

Q: After a disappointing year was it still hard losing Jevan Snead early to the NFL?

A: Eighteen wins (including two Cotton Bowls) in two seasons at Oxford ought to get you a hell of a better reputation than the one Snead enjoys among many Rebel Fans currently.

Yes, last season was frustrating, but anyone with two cents worth of football knowledge knows the Rebels do not beat Florida in '08 or LSU twice without Jevan Snead. Those are some of the biggest wins of the last decade for the Ole Miss Program, and people who say they would rather have someone else at quarterback than the guy who accomplished that get little credibility from me.

It is a love-fest with Masoli right now, and it will be interesting to see whether he is judged against the low expectations many had for this season before he came to Oxford, or if he is held against a mythical idea of what Snead could have done had he not decided to enter the draft.

I guess the litmus test is the LSU game. Snead beat them twice. If Ole Miss loses that game with Masoli at the helm - and it will be Masoli at the helm if the NCAA grants his residency waiver - look for sentiment on Snead to change.

Q: How does the dismissal of WR Pat Patterson effect a group that lost the SEC's top receiver in Shay Hodge?

A: From a numbers perspective, the group is scary thin and can be divided into two groups. You have The Underperformed with Markeith Summers and Lionel Breaux, neither of who found any way to get open on a consistent basis last season. Then you have The Unknowns, young players like Melvin Harris, Jesse Grandy, Ja-Mes Logan and true freshman Vincent Sanders. All will see quite a bit of action.

You can argue that Patterson's dismissal really put a lot of strain on the group and cast doubt on their collective productivity. But you can also argue that he never showed any sign of understanding what it takes to play at this level of football, much less of being the type of player he was projected to be out of high school. It is hard to miss what you never had, but you hate to see kids with that much talent have such a disrespect of it.

To revisit an earlier question, one area where Rader could have a real impact is in developing the passing game for tight ends and full backs.

Moving safeties and linebackers out of passing lanes is something the Rebels have been terrible at the last two years. I think the coaching staff likes the athleticism they have at those offensive positions, but they have to find a way to make them something the defense has to keep an eye on. Defenses are too good in this league not to be challenged, and you don't have to spend much time in the film room to understand why Snead had so many picks.

Q: How much confidence do the fans have in Brandon Bolden to pick up the slack on the ground?

A: Bolden is a known quantity and I think most people understand that he is going to be steady, but has his limitations. If you look at his stat line from his first to seasons, they are nearly identical. He can get you four tough yards, with the occasional pop. I like Bolden and think he should have gotten a lot more credit for stepping up and doing a lot of blocking for Dex last year when you know his competitive spirit had to sting, but unless there is a part of his game he has been saving, even a lighter and quicker Bolden is not a guy that can carry a team week to week.

Enrique Davis looked great in the Spring and has carried that momentum into Fall. Ole Miss Fans have been waiting for him to show signs that he "gets it" because he is the type of back you can hitch a wagon to, and maybe this is the year he lives up to all the promise he carried into Oxford.

Rodney Scott played as a true freshman last year and has some wiggle, and true freshman Jeff Scott has legit track speed that will be hard pressed to stay on the sidelines.

It's Houston Nutt...there are plenty of running backs and he will use them all.

Q: What is the major area(s) of concern on the offensive line which returns the 7th fewest career starts in FBS.

A: I think an interesting storyline this year will be how Bradley Sowell handles the responsibility of leadership. He got off to a terrible start last year, but as the youngest guy on the line (until Bobby Massie took over right tackle) he had the option of staying back and focusing on himself. This year, he's the old man of the group, and there are going to be times when he has to take over and set things straight.

Not having a center that has ever played a meaningful snap is a major concern, and the center-QB exchange is ripe to be a theme this year.

Perhaps one thing that makes Masoli a more attractive option at QB is his ability to escape trouble, and with most of the learning curve in front of the lineman, that might be the most important aspect of his game this year for Ole Miss.

Right guard Rishaw Johnson - who was suspended for roughly the last half of last season - is the key, I believe. If he stays out of trouble and can stay on the field, the line has a chance to be productive. Sans Johnson, no bueno.

Q: Can the experience on the defensive line balance out the inexperience in the secondary?

A: No offense to Houston Nutt, but I think if you were to poll Ole Miss Fans on their favorite coach, I think DC Tyrone Nix would win. The defense is and has been the soul of the Rebel Football Team since he took over, and everybody knows it. His decision to turn down the DC job at Florida this last off season only fed the love.

Schematically, I think you'll see Nix use quite a bit of quarters coverage to protect his DB's. Doing so gives them time to read the plays a little longer as the linebackers have responsibility in the flats. The front seven will hold their own against anyone this season, but the front four - especially if JUCO signee Wayne Dorsey plays like he practices - could be flat out nasty. The better they are up front, the more the linebackers can play outside the box; the more that occurs, the less the DB's have to play on an island.

Finding the fourth player at both secondary positions is the big question mark.

Q: Who are some of the freshman that are likely to contribute?

A: Jeff Scott is a name I mentioned earlier at running that will be tough to keep off the field. He runs a legit 10.3 in the 100 meters and has a pretty good football IQ...he'll get his shot. CB Charles Sawyer had a great Spring and is pushing to start.

True freshman Clarence Jackson has really impressed at linebacker in a short time and is currently working with the two's. Brishen Matthews is another true freshman that has had a good camp and may end up being the fourth safety. Necessity will get WR Vincent Sanders in the playing rotation.

That said, maybe none is more important than Evan Swindoll, a greyshirt freshman who is currently listed at starting center. Any freshman that touches the ball every play is going to have an impact on your season.

Q: Is Miss State the most important game of the year after what happened last year or is beating an Alabama or LSU more important?

A: Historically, the Bama and LSU games have had much greater impact on bowl game implications and I do not think that it is any different now. The Egg Bowl is a nice, in-state rivalry that - let's face it - a lot of people got to know because it was the Thanksgiving Night game.

If pressed, I'm not sure I could name an Egg Bowl that had any affect on the SEC race, so it is hard for me to argue that the Mississippi State game is the most important.

That said, Dan Mullen has revitalized it, and his grabbing on microphone on field last year in Starkville and proclaiming State "the one program in the state on the rise" rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. Admittedly, it is tough imagining an Urban Meyer or Jim Tressell doing something similar, but hey, its Starkville, and it was a big win Mullen and his Bulldogs.

Those who argue for Miss. State being the biggest game this year for the Rebels are really just put off by Mullen.

Despite the win and claims of what disaster it predicted for the Rebels, it has not affected the recruiting trail in-state or elsewhere, and no one will put any real amount on Mullen staying very long at Mississippi State. When Miss. State is the most important game of the year, Ole Miss Fan should remember that it means your team is probably in fifth place in the division.

One thing I've got to say though concerning Mullen, why did he get a pass on calling out Saban regarding NS's remarks about the spread offense? Mullen hinted at his first rounders Alex Smith and Tim Tebow, but considering Smith was considered an absolute bust until the last half of last season (his fourth or fifth in the NFL), and we spent untold man hours hearing about Tebow's need to re-learn the QB position in order to be a viable NFL prospect...doesn't that prove Saban's point that spread offenses don't prepare guys for the NFL? Some one get back to me on that.

Q: Describe a successful season. Describe a disappointing one.

A: Pre-Masoli I think 6-6 on the low side with maybe a chance to win eight, and I'm not one to say Masoli is the missing piece on an almost completely inexperienced offensive unit that will suddenly get the Rebs to 10 wins. I don't think you move the base line, but maybe you hope for nine during the regular season and get to 10 with a bowl win. If you offered the Cotton Bowl and nine wins again, I think fans should take it.

Failing to qualify for a bowl would be a meltdown quality disappointment, and - literally - might kill my father. The schedule is soft the first half of the year, and if Ole Miss were to come out of their first five games 3-2 fans might start marching on the Lyceum. Perspective is hard to come by these days, but this is a rebuilding year for Ole Miss, which used to almost guarantee a four win season. The fact that people are talking about going to a bowl during a rebuilding year says a lot about where the program is right now.

Q: What is your prediction for this season?

A: Prognostication isn't something I spend a lot of time on, but I'll give it a shot.

Jax State, Tulane and Vandy are 3 wins to open the season. Fresno State and Kentucky both come to Oxford where the Rebs play much better and - though I like Kentucky - get 2 more wins.

Bama after a bye week should be a better game than last year, but it is still a solid loss.

I'm not sold on Arkansas, but I think they will be tough for the Rebs to beat this year; loss. Having to beat Auburn to stop a skid is tough, but my gut tells me the Tigers are still a year away. I'll chicken out and say Toss Up.

Louisiana Lafeyette is a win. Tennessee, poor Tennessee, I like Dooley a lot but they will struggle this year. Rare win in Knoxville. LSU will be tough to beat three years in a row, but Rebel Fans hope Miles stays in Baton Rouge forever. Loss.

Mississippi State will likely need this game - as usual - to salvage their season, but home team usually wins. Win

That's 8-3 with Auburn as a Toss Up, with the Rebels going either 5-3 or 4-4 in conference play. Yeah, that sounds about right.

My Take on Ole Miss...
I agree whole-heartedly about Nutt doing much better when the pressure is off and this year noone is talking about Ole Miss winning the West.

Yes, last season was disappointing, but the Rebels still won nine games. That was back-to-back nine win season for the first time since 1961-1962 to give you some perspective on the job Nutt has done in Oxford.

But Ed Ogeron's players are gone now and it is up to Nutt's recruits to keep up the winning tradition. He was basically forced to take Masoli after Raymond Cotton transferred out. It will be an interesting transition because Nutt has always favored the running game and Masoli isn't exactly a deadly drop back passer.

Defensively, they should be very solid again. Their defensive line gives them the chance to put pressure on the QB. Replacing two cornerbacks is a must because Nix's scheme leaves them on an island a lot.

If Ole Miss can win their bowl game, they will have back-to-back-to-back nine win seasons.

8-4, T3rd SEC West

Thanks again to Jeb for his insight. Please check out his work on Bleacher Report.

Previous SEC Previews:
Mississippi State
South Carolina

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