Ole Miss is going to Dallas.
Those words had an electric feel last year for a team that hadn’t sniffed the postseason in five years. It’s different now for a team that aspired to a different level of bowl game.
The Rebels would have reached that higher level had they not lost 41-27 to Mississippi State last Saturday.
So, now Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt is faced with a rebuilding job heading into a Jan. 2 meeting with Oklahoma State.
The Rebels will enter the Cotton Bowl in similar fashion to Texas Tech last year. While Tech had the shock of a recent loss and a BCS snub, the Rebels could see their season taking a non-BCS form since getting their second loss before the mid-way point.
Still, the Rebels must overcome the disappointment of squandering a Capital One opportunity while being thoroughly beaten by their in-state rivals.
A program that is just two years removed from a winless SEC season wants to continue to improve. With an 8-4 regular season the Rebels can be as good as they were last year – in terms of overall record – not better.
College football can be emotionally draining, but it’s important to keep a big-picture perspective. This team got better in November. At the outset of the month playing in anybody’s bowl was not a given. But Ole Miss got better on the offensive line, and that boosted a unit that had been hit and miss. There was improvement by Bradley Sowell at left tackle and more athleticism with freshman Bobby Massie at right tackle.
There was a great improvement in the run game when Nutt dotted the I with his best athlete at tailback.
The problem is not what Dexter McCluster did in the run game but that the run game had to have him to compete.
Brandon Bolden’s last Cotton Bowl helped catapult him to the starting tailback job. He got off to a great start in two non-conference games, but against the SEC Bolden rushed for only 297 yards in eight games.
The passing game has been inconsistent. Jevan Snead had a good November before stepping back in time with three interceptions at MSU. He’s thrown 17 picks on the season, and those aren’t BCS bowl game numbers.
Wide receiver Shay Hodge set an Ole Miss record for single-season receiving yards. The Rebels went so much to Hodge, however, that they failed to develop another dependable receiver.
These are the issues Nutt must confront in moving forward.
For now, opportunity lost always stings, but the Cotton Bowl is a great place to land, and while the Rebels are going to the same bowl they played in last year, it certainly won’t look like the Cotton Bowl when they walk through the entrance of the new Dallas Cowboys Stadium.
It will in fact look like a new beginning, and for a physically worn and emotionally flat team that’s not such a bad thing.
Parrish Alford (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs daily about Ole Miss athletics at www.NEMS360.com.
Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal