MEMPHIS – The Summer of Love tour is over. Today, Ole Miss has a chance to begin living up to the expectations that have followed the program since the end of the 2008 season.
The Rebels won their last six games last year, including a Cotton Bowl victory against Texas Tech. If they win today, they’ll have won seven straight for the first time in 19 years.
Kickoff against the University of Memphis at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium is at 2:30 p.m., and the game will be televised by ESPN.
The Rebels’ No. 8 ranking in the preseason AP Top 25 is their highest since 1970 and their first since 2000. Seven different publications ranked Ole Miss in the top 10 this preseason ranging from No. 5 to No. 10.
The school has sold out its season tickets for what is believed to be the first time.
“This is different. Our guys have not been in these uncharted waters, but I’d much rather it be this way,” second-year Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt said. “People are excited about football. You love for it to be this way.”
This new position among the nation’s elite does not bring with it a different approach. Nutt says his top priority is protecting the football, something the Rebels, who finished 9-4 a year ago, did not do well at the beginning of last season.
With that in mind, he’s looking for his team to avoid turnovers and execute cleanly. He’s not looking for a certain score or victory margin to prove a point to poll voters.
“I’m not worried about trying to prove this or that. We want to come out and play hard for 60 minutes,” he said.
Maybe the preseason attention has or hasn’t motivated the Ole Miss players. It certainly appears to have motivated the Memphis players and coaching staff.
“You know I guess I’m supposed to say that if we win, it’s just one win,” Tigers coach Tommy West said. “There are games that if you win them, they’re probably bigger than what coaches act like.”
West compared the game to the 2003 meeting when Ole Miss had a senior quarterback named Eli Manning. Although Ole Miss went on to a 10-3 season, a Cotton Bowl win and came closer than it ever has to reaching the SEC championship game in Atlanta, the Rebels were dealt a 44-34 September setback in Memphis. It remains Memphis’ last win in the series.
“We found a way to make some plays that day,” West recalled.
So West will call on his receivers, who have a significant height advantage, to make plays today. Those receivers may be better equipped to respond, because Memphis has a second-quarterback in Arkelon Hall. Hall was making his first college start last year against the Rebels.
Memphis also returns a 1,200-yard rusher in Curtis Steele, but the Tigers will send four new offensive line starters against the Ole Miss defensive line, considered by many to be among the best in the nation.
Ole Miss returns most of its playmakers from an offense that scored 45 or more points in three of its last four games. Four times last year the Rebels put up more than 40 points, including 41 against Memphis in a 41-24 season-opening win in Oxford.
Much of the hype around Ole Miss right now originates from quarterback Jevan Snead, who has been projected a top 10 draft pick next spring should he opt out of his senior season. Some have called Snead the potential No. 1 pick.
Like Nutt, Snead’s goals are simple.
“We just have to be consistent,” he said. “We have to take care of the football and not make the mistakes we did starting off last year. It’s no secret that we struggled and stumbled at the beginning last year. We want to get going quicker and try not to have those mistakes.”
Today’s game at a glance
– Where: Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, Memphis
– Kickoff: 2:30 p.m.
– Television: ESPN
– Radio: Ole Miss network; XM channel 199; Sirius channel 220
– Records: Ole Miss 0-0, Memphis 0-0
– Series: Ole Miss leads 46-10-2
– Coaches – Memphis: Tommy West 82-86 (15th year); Ole Miss Houston Nutt 120-74 (17th years)
– Statistical leaders (2008) – Memphis: QB Arkelon Hall 191-335-7, 2,275 yards, 12 TDs passing; RB Curtis Steele 218-1,223, 7 TDs rushing; WR Carlos Singleton 52-791 5 TDs receiving; DB Alton Starr 90 tackles. Ole Miss: QB Jevan Snead 184-327-13, 2,762, 26 TDs passing; RB Dexter McCluster 109-655 6 TDs rushing; WR Shay Hodge 44-725 8 TDs receiving; FS Kendrick Lewis 85 tackles, 4 INT.
Trends: Ole Miss has won the last four and 13 of the last 17 in the series. … The Rebels are 85-24-5 in season openers. …Nutt is 2-0 against Memphis.
– Notes: West has led Memphis to a bowl game in five of the last six seasons. … Memphis was picked third in Conference USA by the league’s coaches. … Memphis RB Curtis Steele ran for 1,233 yards last season en route to CUSA Newcomer of the Year honors. … A win would give Ole Miss seven straight wins for the first time since 1990. … Ole Miss DTs Ted Laurent and Lawon Scott combined for 13 starts last year. … Ole Miss returns its top five rushers from last year’s team, which finished second in the SEC in rushing.
n Summing it up: “A year under my belt has made me more comfortable not only with me but with the rest of the player on offense. I’ve gotten to know the system and how I fit into it. I’m much more confident than last year.” – Ole Miss quarterback Jevan Snead.
Parrish Alford/ NEMS Daily Journal