And so we’ve arrived at the end of this exercise. If you missed any part of this weekly series, please check out the above links to catch up. I hope it helped the summer pass by a little more quickly.
This will be Week 13 of the season, and the final game in a season-closing stretch of three consecutive SEC games for Mississippi State. Dan Mullen will try to improve his record against The School Which Must Not Be Named to 3-0.
Ole Miss Rebels (Nov. 26, in Starkville)
• Conference: SEC
• 2010 record: 4-8 (1-7, 6th Western Division)
• Final ranking: Not ranked
• Coach: Houston Nutt (22-15, three years)
• Returning starters: 17 (9 offense, 6 defense, 2 specialists)
• Last meeting: MSU, 31-23 (Nov. 27, 2010, in Oxford)
• On the Web: olemisssports.com
I don’t know what’s going to happen this November when the Bulldogs and Rebels meet up, but the offseason sparring sure has been fun to watch and listen to. Mullen has always enjoyed tweaking Ole Miss, which until recently didn’t respond much, either on or off the field.
Houston Nutt apparently has had enough of it – Mullen’s mouth or the losing, maybe both – and has started firing back. That’s good for the rivalry, which needs to remain stoked all year long, like Auburn-Alabama or Michigan-Ohio State. But it needs to be competitive on the field, too.
Two years ago, MSU manhandled the Rebs, 41-27 (and it wasn’t that close). Last year, State raced out to a 31-9 lead and held on in the fourth quarter for the 31-23 win. It capped a very disappointing season for Ole Miss, which was coming off back-to-back Cotton Bowl wins.
Will Nutt have things back in order this year? Tough to say, but you have to like what’s happening with the offense. A lively quarterback competition should continue through August, the leading candidates being West Virginia transfer Barry Brunetti (who’s immediately eligible) and junior Randall Mackey, who was redshirted last year after coming in from junior college.
Brunetti was a prep star in Memphis and has the tools. Mackey is a pure athlete. Nutt said recently that Brunetti has the edge. I think the QB position will be solid, but who will be catching passes? Receiver lacks experience, so some talented youngsters like Tobias Singleton, Ja-Mes Logan and Nick Brassell must step up.
Whatever Ole Miss lacks in the passing game should be made up for in the running game. A strong backfield is paced by senior Brandon Bolden (976 yards, 14 TDs, 6.0 ypc last year), and paving the way will be an offensive line that Phil Steele ranks as second-best in the country. He cites the fact that 10 linemen with starting experience are back this year.
Bradley Sowell, a third-year starter at left tackle, has turned into an All-SEC player, and right tackle Bobby Massie is also a third-year starter to watch out for.
Nutt hired old friend David Lee to run the offense this year, and he’s also coaching the quarterbacks. With his new system, the Rebels feel they’re getting a fresh start with the offense.
The Rebels’ biggest concerns are on defense, where they lost their top four defensive tackles, including Jerrell Powe. Linebacker also took a hit, and the top returner at that position, D.T. Shackelford, is out with a torn ACL.
The good news: Defensive end Kentrell Lockett, a.k.a. The Most Interesting Man in the SEC, was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA. His 2010 season was cut short by a torn ACL, but he’s feeling good and is eager to get out there.
Perhaps the biggest issue will be the secondary. The Rebels were last in the SEC last season in pass defense efficiency, allowing 2,956 yards and 24 touchdowns through the air. Senior cornerback Marcus Temple is the lone returning starter among the DBs.
I think Ole Miss might be a little better than some people are saying, and this game at MSU could be one that determines bowl eligibility. Only once in his career has Nutt gone two straight years without reaching a bowl game – 2004-05, with Arkansas. If Ole Miss is out of the running for a bid by the Egg Bowl, well, it might be Nutt’s last chance to beat Mullen.