At the end of the 2008 season, when Ole Miss reeled off consecutive wins over Arkansas, Auburn, Louisiana-Monroe, LSU, Mississippi State and Texas Tech, there weren’t many teams nationally better than the Rebels. That was inarguable.
The pollsters agreed, ranking Ole Miss in the top 10 of the 2009 preseason polls. Sports Illustrated agreed as well, putting the Rebels on one of its geographical covers of the magazine’s college football preview edition. Tru TV had a thing for Ole Miss, too. Nutt agreed to give inside access to a production crew from the network for a reality show about college football that would focus on the Rebels.
A week into camp, Nutt pulled the plug on the idea. I remember everyone laughing it off, but I told ESPN.com’s Chris Low on one of his visits to camp that August that I took the decision as a sign of fear, an indication that the pressure of the spotlight was cracking the Rebels at their very foundation.
I was proven right. The 2009 season went down in the record books as a 9-4 campaign that included a win over Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl. At first blush, it appears to be successful. Upon analysis, however, that season was a lost opportunity.
A questionable offensive gameplan killed the Rebels on a Thursday night in South Carolina. The offense failed to show up in a home loss to eventual national champion Alabama. After strong performances in wins over Arkansas and Tennessee, the Rebels were oddly flat in a loss at Auburn. Then, after a bounce-back win over LSU in Oxford, the Rebels were stunned in Starkville. That loss cost Ole Miss a trip to the Capital One Bowl to play Penn State, gave new Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen bragging rights and momentum and was the beginning of the SEC malaise that ultimately cost Nutt his job.
Since that day, Ole Miss’ only reputable wins have come against a distracted Oklahoma State team and a below-average Kentucky outfit. The 2010 season-opening loss to Jacksonville State humiliated the program, as did consecutive losses to Vanderbilt, a blowout defeat at Tennessee last November and second-half debacles against Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn and Kentucky this fall.
The mistakes in recruiting have become obvious. Nutt failed to sign a quarterback he could build his program around. He inherited Jevan Snead, rolled the dice for a year on Jeremiah Masoli and then turned again to junior college transfers. His high school quarterback signees _ Nathan Stanley, Raymond Cotton and Maikhail Miller _ are either gone or grayshirting. The lone quarterback commitment in the current recruiting class, C.J. Beathard, is a project with no significant offers from BCS-level programs.