COLUMBIA, S.C. – Saturday football is fine with Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt, and he could have done without this break in routine.
His players, however, are excited about the possibilities of a national television window without the glut of weekend games.
“We want to come out and take it personal, play ball, and show that we’re a force in the SEC,” junior defensive end Kentrell Lockett said.
No. 4 Ole Miss and South Carolina kick off tonight at 6:45 on ESPN.
For Ole Miss, it is the opener to an SEC season anticipated like no other in their modern era. Since closing the 2008 season with six straight wins, the Rebels have been on college football’s national radar.
They debuted at No. 8 in the Associated Press Top 25 and with wins against Memphis and Southeastern Louisiana have risen to No. 4, tying their highest ranking since 1970.
Some have questioned whether the Rebels should be ranked so high. Inconsistent offense at Memphis, and to a lesser extent against Southeastern, have contributed to murmurs.
Now a team that has scored 97 points in two games is eager to prove it belongs.
“I’ve been hearing it for the past three days now, everybody saying we’re overrated, that we don’t deserve where we’re at,” tailback Brandon Bolden said. “We have to make a big statement to everybody.”
The Rebels were 5-for-12 on third-downs at Memphis and 5-for-11 against Southeastern.
Between those games the team struggled with a flu outbreak in an open date week that infected 31 players.
The Gamecocks (2-1) figure to be the strongest test yet for an Ole Miss (2-0) offense that is in many ways still trying to find itself.
“Honestly, the first two games, a win is a win, we’re happy with the win, but we know we’re nowhere near where we need to be,” wide receiver Dexter McCluster said. “We just want to go out and play a complete game, first quarter, second quarter all the way to the fourth. We have to execute.”
South Carolina is ranked 15th in the nation, fourth in the SEC in total defense.
Outside linebacker Eric Norwood, first-team All-SEC in 2008, will line up numerous places. The Gamecocks have 10 sacks, four of them by Norwood, who also has 17 tackles and an interception.
Offensive inconsistency for Ole Miss may be due in part to a conservative approach to game-planning.
The Rebels got more people involved against Southeastern Louisiana, and there was more downfield passing.
McCluster, who was held out of the second half against Southeastern to avoid the chance of injury, says the playbook is about to open up.
“We haven’t really shown a lot, and that’s been because we had not gotten into SEC ball yet. You’re going to see a lot of stuff now,” he said. “I know we’re a great offense, and we have to show the world that we are.”
Parrish Alford: firstname.lastname@example.org, 678-1600.
Today’s game at a glance
– Where: Williams-Brice Stadium, Columbia, S.C.
– Kickoff: 6:30 p.m.
– Television: ESPN
– Radio: Ole Miss network; XM channel 199; Sirius channel 219
– Records: Ole Miss 2-0, South Carolina 2-1
– Series: Ole Miss leads 8-6.
– Coaches – South Carolina: Steve Spurrier 172-63-2 (20th year); Ole Miss Houston Nutt 122-74 (17th year)
– Statistical leaders – South Carolina: QB Stephen Garcia 64-102-2 683 yards, 3 TDs passing; RB Jarvus Giles 26-149-1 TDs rushing; WR Tori Gurley 12-180, 1 TDs receiving; LB Eric Norwood 17 tackles, 1 INT, 1 FF, 4 sacks. Ole Miss: QB Jevan Snead 28-50-2 384 yards, 5 Tds passing; RB Brandon Bolden 22-176 1 TD rushing; WR Dexter McCluster 9-113 1 TD receiving; SS Johnny Brown 20 tackles, 1 INT.
Trends: Ole Miss was 3-1 in SEC road games last year, losing only at Alabama and winning at Florida, Arkansas and LSU. … Ole Miss had won four straight against South Carolina before losing in Oxford last season. … The Rebels won 31-28 in 2004, their most recent trip to Columbia.
– Notes: TE Gerald Harris (hamstring) is not expected to play. … The Rebels have won eight straight games dating back to last season, the longest streak since winning 10 in a row over the 1971-1972 seasons. … The win streak is the second-longest active streak in the nation. … The Rebels have not been 3-0 since 1989 and have lost five consecutive SEC openers.
– Summing it up: “You can argue this is the best conference because of the size, the speed and how physical it is. When the ball is down, hands in the dirt, it’s going to be a bloody game, just because it’s the SEC. It’s not finesse like on the West Coast, it’s real hard-nosed football..” – Ole Miss defensive end Kentrell Lockett
Prediction: Ole Miss 29-21
Read more about this game and college football in GameDay in the NEMS Daily Journal newspaper today. The Miss. State-LSU preview will run online the day of the game – Saturday.
Parrish Alford/ NEMS Daily Journal