A look at the early polls and preview mags show Ole Miss to be a consistent top ten pick. The conventional wisdom is that last year's team will improve with an experienced Snead under center and that they are the front-runner in the SEC West race. Admittedly, a lot of this has to do with their schedule.
I want to go on record here with this prediction (and you should know how we feel about predictions here ATVS): Ole Miss will not win the West.
I'm not really anti-Ole Miss. I don't dislike their team and I actually think Nutt is a terrific coach. Snead really is a hell of a quarterback who is going to make a lot of money one day. The Grove is a good scene, even if a tad overrated, but whatever. I'm even happy that they are getting preseason hype. It's been a long time since anyone wrote anything about Ole Miss, so it's nice that their fans get to puff out their chests a bit for once. Hey, enjoy the hype.
Just know, it's probably not going to end the way y'all think. Here's the rundown on why I think Ole Miss is not going to win the West.
Hey, last year wasn't that great.
Ole Miss went 9-4 (5-3) last year. That's a good year, but it's not superlative. They improved as the year went on, winning their last six games including a convincing Cotton Bowl win over Texas Tech. But they did lose to Vanderbilt and South Carolina. They weren't a top ten team last season. They won five games in a down year for the SEC which is nice, but no one's gonna write a song about that.
Let's also not forget that in 2007, Ole Miss went 0-8 in the SEC. Oh for eight. That 5-3 conference record was a massive improvement as the team enjoyed having a decent coach on the sideline. Now, it is time to introduce all of you to Bill James' "plexiglass principle" which essentially states that a team that has a sudden improvement is likely to slide back the next season. It's really a simpler way of saying "regression to the mean".
I believe that Ole Miss under Ed Orgeron grossly underachieved, so improvement was likely last season. But how much of this radical improvement was the team achieving its true potential and how much was just the excitement of having a new staff? Once the new coach smell is gone, does Ole Miss continue to play at the same level, which really isn't an elite level yet.
To compare this to LSU's rise in the late 1990's, progress is often sporadic and frustrating. DiNardo, who brought back the magic after the dismal Hallman years, followed up a ten win season in 1996 and a nine win season in 1997 with perhaps the most frustrating season of my life, the 1998 4-7 season. LSU was a preseason top ten and it was the first time in a long time LSU had any expectations. And we cratered. Hard. Saban followed his first ten win season with an 8-5 year. Both of our national title teams gave us forgettable encores the next year. Improvement is rarely linear.
Graduation hurts more than you think.
Ole Miss lost two first round talents in the offseason, one on each side of the line. That is not a loss a team easily recovers from. Snead is awesome, so their most important player returns. Ole Miss is relying on reliable production from Powe and Hardy on defense, and while both are supremely talented, the talented headcase can be a terrible thing to pin your hopes on.
But the real loss is Oher. Speaking of talented headcases, Oher finally put it all together last season and he was an impressive left tackle. In order to replace him, Ole Miss is playing musical chairs on the line. It's not like there is no talent or experience there, but it's hard to think the line will actually be better without Oher.
I should mention the offense does return the truly electric Dexter McCluster. If I'm a Rebel fan, he's the guy, outside of Snead, I am most excited about returning. The guy is an explosive player and a threat to score almost every time he touches the ball. He's also 165 pounds and it seems like it was a minor miracle he stayed healthy for a full season after some injury problems as an underclassman.
Everyone is better
A lot is being made of Ole Miss' schedule. And it is pretty light for an SEC school. They don't play either Florida or Georgia, the two best teams out East. They get LSU, Bama, and Tennessee (arguably their three toughest games) all at home. That's about as nice as a team can hope for in the SEC.
Ole Miss deserves a lot of credit for taking advantage of a down year, but it was still a down year. LSU suffered through its worst season in about a decade, Arkansas was awful at times, and Auburn was a soap opera. All three teams should be better this year. Auburn and Arkansas, in particular, should see massive improvement in their offensive outputs on the simple ground that it couldn't be worse.
There just won't be as many "easy" wins on the schedule. Sure, they don't have to play Florida, but they have to play improved teams throughout the year. I absolutely guarantee that Auburn's offense will be greatly improved this year and they will give everyone a much tougher game. Maybe not a return to the top 25, but Auburn certainly will not be the speed bump on the schedule they were last season.
There's just a lot of factors working against Ole Miss this year. 2008 was a near perfect storm for the Rebels, and it's difficult to believe all of the stars will align for them again. Will they be good? Of course. Nutt's a good coach, they have some playmakers on defense, and the best quarterback in the SEC who does not go home to sit by the right side of the Father.
But this is a team that has to improve in order to win the division, and I don't see that improvement. I believe that it will be a major challenge to merely maintain the massive improvement the program made last season. I actually believe Nutt is up for that challenge, but expecting more seems a tad unrealistic. The jury is still out on whether last season was a one-year aberration or a new level for Ole Miss. The most likely answer is that the truth lies somewhere in between.
Before we anoint Ole Miss is a top ten team, let's see it on the field first. It's not like it can't happen, but Ole Miss has done nothing in the past forty years of football to warrant the benefit of the doubt (yes, there was the obligatory cheap shot). I'm taking a wait and see approach to this Rebels squad, but color me skeptical.
OK, I promise not to talk about Ole Miss again for at least a week. I swear I'm not obsessed.