By David Brandt/The Associated Press
OXFORD — As Ole Miss navigated through the brutal stretch of Southeastern Conference play that every team in the league must go through, coach Houston Nutt kept waiting for the breakthrough win that could finally get the Rebels rolling and on track for bowl eligibility.
But week after week, the losses piled up. Some were close. Some were blowouts. Some were because the Rebels played poorly. Sometimes they were simply outclassed.
Whatever the reasons, one thing is now clear — there will be no postseason for the Rebels after Saturday’s 43-36 loss to then-No. 5 LSU. What’s become a disastrous season for Ole Miss (4-7, 1-6 SEC) now has only one more chance to produce something positive: The Egg Bowl.
Though disappointed, Nutt said his team hasn’t stopped fighting.
“I’ll be honest with you — I don’t like losing,” Nutt said. “We didn’t plan on it. That’s a bitter pill to swallow and it’s been difficult with injuries and some decisions our young people have made, that really hurts, but I feel good about what we have going … I think good things are coming, I really believe that.”
Nutt pointed to last weekend’s close loss to LSU as evidence that his team was still capable of pulling off the upset over No. 25 Mississippi State (7-4, 3-4) on Saturday.
“There was a lot of hurt in that dressing room,” Nutt said. “A lot of people laid their hearts and energy on the field, and so I really want to build from that.”
Ole Miss will play MSU without leading receiver Melvin Harris, who was suspended for the Egg Bowl after an unspecified team rules violation. It was another setback in a string of bad news for the Rebels — but something Nutt says his team could overcome.
“When you play like you played (against LSU) I can live with whatever happens,” Nutt said. “The only thing I want to eliminate is the foolish, foolish mistakes. That’s what hurts you, the foolish mistakes.”
The Rebels do appear to have some advantages.
Though there aren’t many wins to show for it, the Ole Miss offense has been quite respectable, averaging better than 31 points per game. Quarterback Jeremiah Masoli is one of the best dual-threats in the conference and running back Brandon Bolden needs just 69 rushing yards against MSU to reach 1,000 for the season.
Maybe most importantly, the game will be in Oxford. The home team has won 10 of the past 11 in the series.
Even Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen — who won’t even say the actual name of the school — acknowledges the Rebels could cause problems.
“The school up north, they have a talented football team,” Mullen said. “They have good players on their roster. They’ve won a bunch of games during their careers. It’s going to be an emotional game for their seniors. They are a dangerous, talented team.”
That’s been true on offense. Defense has been a different matter, with the Rebels giving up more than 35 points per game, which is last by a wide margin in the SEC. Now Ole Miss has to figure out a way to stop MSU quarterback Chris Relf, who specializes in running the option.
But last week against Arkansas, Relf looked better in the passing game, throwing for 224 yards in a double-overtime loss.
Ole Miss linebacker D.T. Shackelford said the Rebels have to be ready for anything.
“That’s when you find out how good your defense is — can you change on the go?” Shackelford said. “It’s never going to be exactly how you planned it anyway, it’s always going to have some curveballs and stuff thrown in there.”