Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt knew the question was coming.
On second thought, questions.
In waves. Posed in different ways. Formulated long before his inquisitors’ arrival at SEC Media Days.
Nutt, the conventional wisdom goes, tended to thrive as the underdog in his 10 seasons with the Arkansas Razorbacks. The Hogs twice went to the SEC championship game in his tenure. They reached the Cotton Bowl three times, the Citrus Bowl once. They were an established program.
But when the expectations were high, when Arkansas returned plenty of talent, the Razorbacks were labeled as underachievers.
Things more or less stayed true to form in Nutt’s first season with the Rebels. Coming off a winless SEC campaign, no one expected Ole Miss to do much in 2008. When the Rebels were 3-4, coming off a tough 24-20 loss at Alabama, they’d lost three of four games, all to SEC opponents.
Then, well, we saw what happened.
Jevan Snead got more comfortable in the pocket. Peria Jerry and the Rebels’ defensive line became a force. Ole Miss started moving the football with its ground game. By the time the Rebels got to LSU, where they rolled to a 31-13 upset at Tiger Stadium, it was clear they could play.
Even though Jerry and All-America offensive tackle Michael Oher were on their way to the NFL, the Rebels knew they’d return plenty of talent. They’ll open the season in the Top 15, possibly the Top 10. And Nutt knew the questions would be coming.
“If you look at the times we were picked high (at Arkansas), we had some major injuries. Major,” Nutt said. “Not as an excuse, but that’s part of it. It’s a blow.
“I can tell you this. I was really nervous when I got a phone call from (All-SEC defensive end) Greg Hardy and (multi-purpose receiver) Dexter McCluster getting hit in broad daylight, the front tire going through the engine, the car catches on fire, and to think how lucky they are to be alive.”
Arkansas insiders suggest otherwise, that the reputation fits. But perception is reality, and the reality is this is the Rebels’ best chance to do some serious damage since Eli Manning’s departure. Before that, we might be talking about the Archie Manning Era.
“We’re excited to be in this position,” Nutt said. “We knew this would happen. If you go toward the end of the year, you win six straight, you go to the Cotton Bowl, you beat a good team like Texas Tech, there’s going to be some attention.
“Now, you’ve got to embrace it.”
Ole Miss is the only SEC West team that has yet to play in the league’s championship game, which was launched in 1992. I asked Snead how often he’s been reminded about that reality.
“I’ve never been reminded about it as much as I have today,” he said.
All this falls on Nutt, to keep his team grounded. Hungry. The Rebels get their toughest two SEC West opponents, LSU and Alabama, at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Their non-conference schedule is, well, a joke.
This is their chance.
Ole Miss, after all, was the only team to beat Florida last year. And the Gators were reminded about that setback for months. It helped form the legend of Tim Tebow, whose passionate postgame speech is now enscribed in the walls of Florida’s stadium.
SEC title game or bust? Not in Nutt’s mind.
“That’s a difficult journey. It’s very hard to get (to Atlanta). Things have to go right,” Nutt said. “I wouldn’t say that. For a team that had four previous losing seasons, I wouldn’t say that. I think our team is on the rise.”
One thing’s for certain.
The expectations aren’t going anywhere.
Jim Mashek/The Sun Herald