High Expectations at Ole Miss

Heading into the 2009 season, the Rebels were expected to compete for a SEC title.

<p> Ole Miss football has been here before. Wins. Rankings. Notoriety. Expectations. They’re all engrained in Ole Miss football — at least the way it was half a century ago.</p>

This article about expectations at Ole Miss appeared in Athlon's 2009 SEC regional edition. With the Rebels' decision to force coach Houston Nutt out at the end of the year, here's a look back at the high expectations surrounding the program going into the 2009 season.

Ole Miss football has been here before. Wins. Rankings. Notoriety. Expectations. They’re all engrained in Ole Miss football — at least the way it was half a century ago.

That picture of Ole Miss football in the 1950s and 1960s was a motivating factor for two men who have helped revive the program. They were part of a plan that has Ole Miss positioned as a consensus top 15 team heading into the 2009 season, a team with a chance to win the SEC — the ultimate conference championship — and a team in the discussion for a BCS bowl game.

Robert Khayat was a kicker and lineman on what was arguably the best football team in the rich history of the University of Mississippi. He was a senior under legendary coach John Vaught in 1959 when the Rebels lost only to a tricky LSU punt returner named Billy Cannon, who cut to the inside instead of the sideline in the Tigers’ 7–3 win on Halloween night. Three outlets proclaimed Ole Miss, at 10–1, the national champion that season.

Pete Boone, now the athletic director, came onto the scene later, lettering from 1970-72. The best times were in the rearview mirror but were still fresh in the minds of Rebel fans.

The lives of Khayat and Boone intersected in the university community. They became good friends and handball buddies.

They longed to see Ole Miss football as what it had been, not what it had become, and they found themselves in position to do something about it.

“We certainly had, and have, that desire,” says Khayat, the school’s outgoing chancellor, who will retire in June.

“What our fans want is consistency in a winning program,” Boone says. “To me that means they come to every game believing we’re going to win. If we don’t win, they feel we should have and that we’re going to win next week.”

Ole Miss fans indeed expect to win this season.

Boone began his first term as AD in 1995. Khayat began his run as chancellor the same year. Under their combined leadership the school has increased its commitment to facilities and coaches’ salaries. The missing piece of the puzzle — a successful, experienced coach — was added in November 2007 when Houston Nutt jumped from Arkansas to Oxford.

Nutt is the primary reason for this season’s expectations.

The Rebels floundered under former coach Ed Orgeron. Khayat and Boone hired a proven recruiter instead of a proven head coach when replacing David Cutcliffe, whom they fired following the 2004 season.

“David Cutcliffe’s last two years we virtually had no recruiting, no signing of people who could play,” Khayat says. “It was pretty natural to go for the person who was viewed as the best recruiter in the country. What we didn’t realize was that Ed was going to have so much difficulty coaching.”

The Orgeron Experiment concluded with the coach’s 3–21 SEC mark in three seasons. He was shown the door but left behind plentiful talent, which Nutt managed more successfully in 2008.

The Rebels started slowly but showed promise in some close losses. In late September they dealt eventual national champion Florida its only defeat, but it was in late October that the football program began to win like it had under Vaught.

Ole Miss won its last six games, routing LSU 31–13 in Baton Rouge, rival Mississippi State 45–0 at home and ultimately handling media darling Texas Tech, ranked No. 7 at the time, 47–34 in the Cotton Bowl.

The Rebels — having suffered through a winless SEC season in Orgeron’s last hurrah — won their four November games by a combined count of 152–20. They finished 9–4, and the Cotton Bowl win propelled them to a No. 14 final ranking. Ole Miss finished 5–3 in the SEC, second in the West.

Virtually every playmaker from the SEC’s No. 2 scoring offense returns. Eight starters are back from a defense that was playing at an elite level late last season, though replacing All-America defensive tackle Peria Jerry will be a challenge.

Boone approaches the topic of expectations cautiously.

“Do I feel like we made a lot of progress last year? Absolutely. Are we going in the right direction? Absolutely. Do I think we’re there? Absolutely not,” he says. “Over the course of a season so many things have to happen to end up in the championship event.”

Many Ole Miss fans in the offseason have bypassed talk of getting to Atlanta — the Rebels are the only Western Division team yet to make the league’s championship game — in favor of their chances for a BCS bowl.

A BCS bid could be hindered by a lack of strength of schedule. After waiting on ESPN to finalize a Thursday night game at South Carolina, then having talks with TCU break off, Boone found himself with a late vacancy and added Northern Arizona for Nov. 7. The move gives the Rebels two FCS opponents.

Nutt hopes his team is in the BCS mix when the time comes.

“I told our players they can no longer hide,” Nutt says. “No longer will they not be on the radar screen. Last year, people didn’t even know about them. This year they’re picked in all the magazines.”

 “With what they have coming back, I think they’ll be under-achieving if they don’t at least get back to a New Year’s Day bowl,” says John Darnell, a quarterback on Billy Brewer’s Ole Miss teams in the late 1980s. “That’s not to put any pressure on them; I think they would say that too. Expectations have been raised not only by the fans but by the players and coaches themselves.”

Modern-day Ole Miss football has less experience with high expectations than Nutt did at Arkansas. The Rebels have never been preseason favorites to win the West. Since the SEC split into divisions in 1992, league media have picked the Rebels has high as No. 2 only twice.

In 2003, senior quarterback Eli Manning’s team went 7–1 in the league — losing at home in November to LSU in what amounted to a Western Division championship game — then won the Cotton Bowl and finished No. 13 in the rankings. That team was only picked third in the division.

In the cannibalistic landscape of SEC football, the Rebels may not start the season on top in the West. The national exposure they received at the close of 2008, however, should have them ranked high enough to continue the important season-long ascent if they prove to be as good as many people believe.

“I think we can handle the expectations,” senior wide receiver/tailback Dexter McCluster says. “We handled it pretty well last year when we had no expectations.”

In one year Nutt’s challenge has changed from making players believe they were better than they thought to making them remember that pride cometh before a fall.

“It’s about being humble and going back to work. It’s doing the little things right, it’s the sacrifice and investment you have to make,” he says. “We’re in the toughest league in America. What we did last year doesn’t just happen.”

At Ole Miss it hasn’t happened with consistency since the days of Vaught. Fans are hoping that 2008 wasn’t lighting in a bottle, but rather the beginning of something big. For six straight games last season, grandfathers talked of how it used to be, and for the first time, grandchildren had a visual aid on the field.

“There’s a level of passion here that I haven’t seen in a long, long time,” Khayat says.

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