Rebels have chance for another special season|Opinion

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 2, 2009

Flipping through several of the preseason college football preview magazines, one conclusion was inescapable.

The Rebels are a chic pick these days.

The prognosticators think Ole Miss is a sure-fire Top 10 team with a chance to win the SEC West and even go to a BCS game, something the Rebels have never done.

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Is Houston Nutt’s team ready to make that next step?

The answer to that question is a complicated one. Ask any Rebel fan and the keys for an Ole Miss resurgence are the work of Nutt and the emergence of Jevan Snead as one of the SEC’s best quarterbacks.

Snead had a remarkable 2008, including leading the Rebels to an upset win in the Swamp over eventual national champion Florida.

He completed 184 of 327 passes for 2,762 yards with 26 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.

And the nonconference schedule is weaker than cardboard shoes on a rainy day. Ole Miss will host not one, but two Football Championship Subdivision (the old Division I-AA) foes at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium when Southeastern Louisiana and the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks) pay a visit to the Grove.

The two Division I-A foes (now the FBS, but old habits die hard) are not particularly sexy either. Memphis is a traditional rival, but the Tigers are not exactly a perennial powerhouse. UAB is a Conference USA bottom feeder and will present no threat to the Rebels.

That’s four wins in the bag already.

The SEC slate is decidedly

friendly to the Rebels. Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee and LSU all visit Vaught-Hemingway, with the only big road test a Sept. 24 game at South Carolina.

No games are bigger than LSU and Alabama, the two teams that Ole Miss will be battling for the SEC West title. With both of them at home, the Rebels have a better-than-average shot of winning both.

Was it mentioned there is no Florida on the schedule? The Rebels swap out Tim Tebow and the defending national champions for a much weaker Tennessee team led by rookie coach Lane Kiffin and his litany of minor NCAA violations.

It isn’t all good news when it comes to the next season. The Rebels lost some key pieces to the puzzle in the NFL draft and will sport a reconstituted offensive line and a new defense.

The biggest piece to go was All-America left tackle Michael Oher, meaning Snead will have a new blind-side protector come fall. And in the SEC where NFL-quality pass-rushers populate the landscape like the “See Rock City” barn roofs throughout the South, breaking in a new left tackle is a tough proposition. Maurice Miller, who split time in his career at Ole Miss between right guard and right tackle, also left for the NFL.

Snead, who runs well, might have to run for his life a little more often than he’d like.

Another key cog gone is Peria Jerry, the chaos-causing defensive tackle who clogged the middle and anchored the Rebels’ defense. Linebackers Tony Fein and Ashlee Palmer and safety Jamarca Sanford are on NFL rosters as well.

So the keys for the Rebels will be finding a new left tackle and rebuilding a defense gutted by the draft.

If the Rebels do both, this is their best-ever shot to make their first SEC Championship Game. If not, a second-place finish in the West and another Cotton Bowl trip would be, surprisingly, a disappointment.

That’s one of the pitfalls of big expectations.

Steve Wilson is sports editor of The Vicksburg Post. Write to him at Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS 39182, or e-mail