JACKSON — As a player, booster and now athletic director, Pete Boone has watched the Mississippi football team closely for the last four decades. He’s never seen anything like this.
The Rebels are expected to start the season in the top 10 and have a schedule that has fans talking division titles in Houston Nutt’s second year. Season ticket sales are up, T-shirts are being snapped up and companies are clamoring with new products on which they can slap an Ole Miss logo.
“It’s new energy,” Boone said as fans swirled around him during a recent booster event. “It’s not something that’s built. So this is all fresh energy, and people are excited about what they think is going to happen.”
The trick now for Jevan Snead, Greg Hardy and the rest of the Rebels as they begin practice Monday will be fulfilling the growing expectations.
Ole Miss won its final six games last season and smashed No. 8 Texas Tech in a 47-34 Cotton Bowl victory, pushing the Rebels to 9-4 and No. 14 in the final poll.
“It’s a little bit different than last year when everybody was asking if we could just get to six (wins),” Nutt said.
There’s even a backlash already — those who believe Nutt’s teams overperform in lean years and underperform in the spotlight’s glare.
Nutt has done his best to make sure his Rebels aren’t paying attention. In January, he told them to take off their Cotton Bowl hats and stop talking about the flat-screen televisions they picked up for earning a trip to Dallas.
“It’s good to be up there, but again that means nothing,” Nutt said. “The same experts that now are picking us high, they picked us last last year or toward the bottom. So we try to teach our guys that they have no credibility now. You’ve got to do it.”
That’s a lesson Nutt has learned the hard way. In 10 years at Arkansas, the Razorbacks always seemed to perform best as underdogs and stumble when expectations were high. That led to fan disenchantment in Fayetteville, and some wonder if Nutt will falter in Oxford as well. The question has been asked of Nutt at nearly every stop this summer. The coach admits it’s always tough to carry a target.
“Last year we had an attitude we’re fixing to go hunt, we’re going to go compete, try to win this game when nobody gives us a chance,” Nutt said. “So that is a little bit of a factor. You know, right now we’re the hunted a little bit. We’re getting a little bit more attention.”
It’s hard to ignore. The chatter is everywhere, from the gas station pumps to the grocery store aisles.
“I don’t think we’re handling it any differently,” junior quarterback Snead said. “People said we weren’t going to do well last year. We ignored them and kept working hard. I think this year we’re doing the same and working hard. We’re going to follow that same formula and keep doing everything we can to improve.”
And that means overcoming a few roster deficiencies.
The Rebels lost two all-Americans — first-round picks Michael Oher and Peria Jerry. Oher and two others will have to be replaced on the offensive line; the secondary is improved but still dangerously thin; and freshmen must contribute right away.
The schedule should allow Ole Miss to work those players in early. Games against Conference USA and Football Championship Subdivision teams are sandwiched around a bye in the first three weeks of the season before the SEC schedule starts.
Chris Talbott/The Associated Press