OXFORD – Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt doesn’t like the nickname “Reverend” applied to him by a certain college football face at ESPN.
There seems to be an easy fit in the name, though.
When Nutt was the coach at Arkansas and would address SEC Media each summer, he’d often talk about his visits with those “Razorback clubs” and the passion the people held for Arkansas football. You could envision the room in a frenzy.
So when the Ole Miss administration sought to rebuild after the Ed Orgeron Experiment, it hired not a championship coach but an experienced, winning coach, a motivator who puts his team in position to win big games.
When that happens, you put your team in position to win championships. Nutt put his Arkansas teams in that position several times.
He laughed Monday when asked if he had been a member of the speech team in high school or college.
“I think the speech is a little overrated sometimes. You want to make it fun and you want to give them something to carry into each game. I just don’t like to talk to be talking. I want them to hear something that is very real,” Nutt said.
What is real is the exposure and confidence the Ole Miss program received last season, Nutt’s first as head coach, by winning 31-30 at No. 4 Florida.
It was Nutt’s second straight win over a top 5 team, since he ended his Arkansas career by winning at No. 1 LSU. He’s 5-8 all-time against top 5 teams with another meeting on tap Saturday, as No. 3 Alabama visits No. 20 Ole Miss in a game critical to the Rebels’ on-going pursuit of the program’s first SEC championship game appearance.
This is Nutt’s game. This is what his reputation was built on. He took Arkansas to Atlanta twice, but with a 48-42 SEC record his name has been established on his ability to rally players when they’re the underdogs, not for winning championships.
Make no mistake, the Rebels are the underdogs. Ole Miss has not dealt with its question marks as successfully as Alabama has in the early going.
That goes back to recruiting. Nutt talks about the wish of all coaches, the ability to call out “next” and bring in that four- or five-star recruit to replace an impact player.
So when there were four holes on the offensive line, Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban plugged them with some very talented players, and that offensive line has helped Alabama rush for 228.2 yards a game, third in the SEC.
They’ve also done a pretty fair job of protecting Greg McElroy, who has been sacked only five times.
That had to be the greatest concern for Alabama fans, whose last memory of their team on the playing field was a mental picture of Utah coming over the left side for what seemed like 31 sacks in a 31-17 Sugar Bowl win for the Utes.
Seeing McElroy, a first-year starter, with a completion percentage of 65.5 with nine touchdowns and only one interception, it’s clear that Ole Miss needs to disrupt the Crimson Tide quarterback.
Pass rush is something that’s been good to the Rebels this year. It’s a must this week. Ole Miss needs Greg Hardy to find his 2007 form. Hardy jumped into the national consciousness against Alabama two years ago in Oxford with 13 tackles and three sacks. He was everywhere, making every play.
Hardy has played hard this year, but he’s also played hurt. This national telecast is an opportunity for him to advance his persona as a first-rate pass rusher, the kind that makes millions in the NFL.
It’s an opportunity for Nutt to motivate his players with the nobody-believes-in-us approach because, frankly, a lot fewer people believe in the Rebels in this game than might have two weeks ago.
It’s an opportunity for Nutt to push the right buttons Saturday afternoon, to win and re-insert the Rebels into the thick of the Western Division race. Falling two games behind this Alabama team would make Atlanta seem much farther away than an afternoon’s drive.
Just two weeks ago, Ole Miss held a top 5 spot in the rankings, but in two SEC games the Rebels – with a host of returning players – have been unable to unleash the powerful offense that captured the nation’s attention at the end of last season.
Oxford will be the capital of the Land of Opportunity this Saturday, its congregation hoping Nutt has the top five magic working again.
Parrish Alford (parrish.alford@ djournal.com) covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs daily about Ole Miss athletics at NEMS360.com.
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