OPINION: Road to success began last year with Memphis

OXFORD – It’s a very different opening-week scene for Ole Miss this year.
The Rebels begin the 2009 football season Sunday at 2:30 against Memphis at the Liberty Bowl
This time last year, the Rebels just needed a win, needed one in the worst way, needed to get off on a good note in the Houston Nutt Era.
In fact, the Nutt Era got off on such a good note in the big picture of things – with six straight wins to close 2008 – that the Rebels find themselves No. 8 in the AP Top 25 right now.
It all began with last year’s 41-24 Ole Miss win against Memphis in Oxford. It was the series’ most lopsided game in six years. The 17-point margin also the cushion odds-makers say the Rebels will achieve this time around.
Ole Miss had not put forth a respectable offense since Eli Manning. For the Rebels to put up 41 points in the opener was a shot in the arm, something substantive to support the theory that a veteran coach really was inheriting a talented roster.
Memphis actually outgained Ole Miss 453-438 last year, but it took the Tigers an additional 25 plays to gain those 15 yards.
It was the defensive side last year where the Rebels were finding their way. The front was known, but the linebackers and the secondary were not.
This year there’s still a lot of proven firepower on offense. The defense is farther along than it was, though, and a strong showing by this unit would go a long way in helping an offense that, for all its talent, goes into the opener with questions at left tackle.
Exactly how good quarterback Jevan Snead can be will be determined in large part by what type of blind-side protection he gets from sophomore Bradley Sowell.
Distance between the leagues
There is distance between the SEC and Conference USA, but it isn’t Southeastern Louisiana the Rebels are facing. That comes later. Memphis is a program that attracts talent. It would attract more with better football facilities, but the Tigers will have players. They’ll have big, quality receivers and a quarterback, who, unlike last season won’t be playing his first Division I game. Defensively, a unit that returns seven starters will get a lift with some SEC transfers.
So if you’re Ole Miss, what constitutes success here? Players and coaches say the right things, respect for opponent, etc. But if you’re really the No. 8 team, do you feel good Sunday night if you leave the Liberty Bowl having won 13-11? Probably not.
There’s a bit of shadow boxing that goes along in every season opener. The Rebels say they haven’t focused on the hype, and now is their chance to prove it. They need to play assignment-sound football, eliminate turnovers on offense and force their own on defense.
If that happens you’ll likely see the wide margin many expect.
This isn’t an Ole Miss team that should be a “work in progress” like last season, but even eighth-ranked teams have issues, particularly depth, to address early on.
As the fan base champs at the bit to begin the most anticipated season in modern history, a few words of caution: Know when to say “win.”
Parrish Alford (parrish.alford@djournal.com) covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs daily about Ole Miss athletics at NEMS360.com.

Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal