If you ask people who LSU's biggest rival, your answer will largely depend on the generation of the person you're asking. If you're asking someone, oh, 25 years old and younger, you may get "Florida" or "Bama" as an answer. If you're asking someone who is over 50 years of age, your answer may well be "Ole Miss" or even "Tulane". In between, the answer may be "Auburn".
It goes back to a problem LSU has had for a while. We have no real natural rivals. I think many LSU fans would rate Bama as the biggest rival, but almost no Bama fan would rank LSU any higher than 3rd on their hate list, behind Tennessee and Auburn. Many LSU fans would say Auburn is our biggest rival, but Auburn would probably also rate us 3rd, behind Georgia and Bama. Florida would probably rate us 3rd as well, behind Tennessee and Georgia. Arkansas would probably rate us, at best, second, behind Texas.
Ole Miss? Ole Miss is a different story. Ole Miss is the closest thing we have to a natural rival. The rivalry has cooled among younger generations in recent years because, frankly, Ole Miss had not kept up with us this decade, and many would say that the 1990s hardly count when it comes to LSU football. That changed last year.
In the midst of a very tough year for LSU, when two systemic problems caught up to us. First, our inability to recruit a quarterback either the year before or the year after signing Ryan Perrilloux meant that when Perrilloux was finally jettisoned, we had no experienced QB to turn to, even as a stopgap measure. Second, the personnel decisions we made on the coaching staff backfired immediately and spectacularly.
This had a number of bad results, among the most notable was an embarrassing 31-13 loss to an Ole Miss team we had beaten every year seemingly from time immemorial.
To be fair, Ole Miss really put it together last year. Several consecutive years of solid recruiting and the ultimate insertion of a genuinely competent quarterback allowed the Rebels to turn the corner and become dangerous again. A lot of people will attribute this to the influence of new head coach Houston Nutt, but I really think the credit goes to Ed Orgeron for bringing in Jevan Snead and a host of solid veterans like Peria Jerry, Greg Hardy, Mike Wallace, and Michael Oher.
Snead and Hardy are back for another season, though Hardy recently reinjured his chronically gimpy foot in a pretty scary-sounding car accident in which he was fortunate not to be more seriously injured. If Hardy is healthy, they will provide the nucleus of what should be a pretty good team, though I am skeptical of all this talk of Ole Miss being a top 5 team. It's great to have the QB play, but Ole Miss isn't sneaking up on anyone this year like they did last year, and they will miss Oher and Jerry immensely.
The good news for Ole Miss is that they probably have the easiest schedule in all the SEC. Their nonconference schedule consists of Memphis, SLU, UAB, and Northern Arizona. Northern Arizona lost to Weber State and Montana last year by a combined 87-24 score. I don't really fault a team for playing patsies outside the conference. Actually, I kind of do, but I can't complain too much because we're guilty of it too. The other aspect of Ole Miss's schedule that makes it easy is that they don't play either of the two best teams in the Eastern Division, Florida and Georgia. Instead, they get South Carolina, Vandy, and Tennessee. They also get LSU, Arkansas, and Bama at home. They have, therefore, among the easiest nonconference schedule, the easiest cross-division schedule, and the easiest intradivision schedule in the SEC West.
Which is of course to say nothing of what they will do against us. I think the key matchup here will be how the revamped LSU secondary handles the passing attack Jevan Snead will throw at us. Yes, I know the "Wild Rebel" with Dexter McCluster will get a lot of press, but in watching it last year I never really saw where it was all that effective. McCluster got some yards, but he was no Darren McFadden, and he was no threat to throw the ball. Plus, he fumbled a good bit. Overall, I'm not really sure the Wild Rebel really helped them last year, and I'm not sure it will help them this year.
Another key will be how the Ole Miss secondary, a bit of a problem for them last year, improves in the 2009 season. No conference team gave up more yards passing per game (and cumulatively) than did Ole Miss. They were the only pass defense in the conference that gave up more than LSU's did. Ole Miss was 10th in pass efficiency defense, mainly because they actually got a good number of interceptions, but they gave up the highest completion percentage in the league. With Jarrett Lee getting hurt last year and being replaced by Jordan Jefferson, we were never really able to take advantage of that against them, but they sure shredded our pass defense with an 11.0 yard per attempt average with two touchdowns.
This is a different year for both teams, and while I'm not "scared" of Ole Miss, they certainly present a very credible threat. They will have legitimately one of the best QBs in the league, and they will have a very solid defensive line, especially if Greg Hardy can return to health. This will be an important late-season battle for the Tigers.