OPINION: McCluster heads into Ole Miss lore

Coaches and athletes come and go, and many of them are very good at their craft.
It’s only the sports writers who hang around.
If you’re going to hang around you at least need to be able to pick out the truly unique players and separate them from the above average and the very good.
You need to do that because players like Dexter McCluster should not be lumped together with players who are only very good. McCluster is much, much more than that.
Ole Miss fans can thank McCluster for a second-straight nine-win season. The last time the university had back-to-back football seasons with at least nine wins it was struggling to enroll James Meredith, its first black student. The Rebels were 9-2 in 1961 and 10-0 in 1962.
McCluster was the top athlete in the SEC this season, the first in league history to total more than 1,000 yards rushing and more than 500 yards receiving in the same season.
All that and he still couldn’t find a spot on the coaches All-SEC first team. Voters didn’t know what to do with him. Most defenses didn’t either.
With 18 wins in two years Ole Miss has come closer to John Vaught glory than at any time since the legendary coach stepped down. There have been flashes, but the consistency has been missing.
So while 18 wins hearken back to Vaught, the celebration is somewhat subdued.
Houston Nutt’s remarkable turnaround of a team that was 0-for-the-SEC in 2007 elevated expectations past the level of six or seven wins and a minimum-wage bowl game.
Following a 21-7 win over No. 21 Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl, the feeling is more appreciation than celebration. There’s an air – rightfully so – of disappointment, not in the results necessarily but in how opportunity was lost at various points in the season.
One long-time observer put it this way: “It hurts to waste a win over LSU.”
The season didn’t enhance Nutt’s stature among those who see him as a coach whose success will reach a plateau.
The No. 4 ranking in September was a bit inflated, but it would not have taken a Western Division title or a BCS bowl for the program to show improvement this season. There was still that chance in the final regular season game with the Capital One Bowl on the line, but the Rebels underestimated Mississippi State.
A nine-win regular season, a shot at 10 wins and a bigger bowl payout are status points that would have made a big difference among the fan base.
Playing ugly in a pretty stadium in the bowl game didn’t help.
A stellar defensive performance was overshadowed by poor quarterback play and pre-snap penalties on offense and by missed field goals on special teams.
Regardless of circumstances, lost opportunity stings.

The big picture
In the bigger picture, Nutt is 18-8 overall, 9-7 in two seasons at Ole Miss.
There’s a lot of good going on.
Next year will be big for Nutt and the program, and it starts with finding a way to replace the production of McCluster, the school’s most dynamic player of the modern era.
There will be key losses at wide receiver, offensive line, defensive end, linebacker, cornerback and safety too … whew.
Next year will be a rebuilding season, though Nutt doesn’t like to use that word. Vaught didn’t like it either.
Nutt will have to answer questions at quarterback, and more of his signees will play more prominent roles. Year III will be an important season for a veteran coach trying to get the program to where Vaught once had it.
Given the McCluster void and other personnel losses, a nine-win season next year, if Nutt can pull it off, will have a different feel about it.

Parrish Alford covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs about Ole Miss athletics at NEMS360.com and can be reached at (parrish.alford@djournal.com).

Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal