Ole Miss Rebels (2000: 7-5)
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Coach and programIt's amazing that West Virginia led Ole Miss, 49-9, before the end of the third quarter in last year's Music City Bowl. It's more amazing that Ole Miss fans can smile at the memory.
The last quarter of a dreadful game marked the beginning of a new era in Ole Miss Football. Call it "Manning II."
With Ole Miss trailing by 40 points, redshirt freshman quarterback Eli Manning came off the bench to complete 12-of-20 passes for 167 yards and three touchdowns. By game's end, Ole Miss fans were already looking forward to 2001.
Archie made the Manning name famous at Ole Miss more than 30 years ago. He was a two-time first-team All-American, a first-round NFL draft pick and an all-pro with the New Orleans Saints. He was arguably the most exciting player in the storied history of SEC football.
Ole Miss didn't win an SEC championship with Manning at quarterback, but it often played like a champion, repeatedly upsetting superior teams. Eli revived the magic with the fourth-quarter comeback against West Virginia.
Eli can't scramble like his father. But his passing and poise remind Manning followers of his older brother Peyton, the former Tennessee All-American now starring with the Indianapolis Colts in the NFL.
In the midst of the Manning hoopla is Rebels coach David Cutcliffe, Peyton's quarterback coach and offensive coordinator. Peyton thrived under Cutcliffe; Eli is apt to do the same.
No one questions Cutcliffe's football savvy. In addition to Peyton, Cutcliffe developed quarterback Heath Shuler into a first-round draft pick after only three years. He also helped the Vols win a national championship in Tee Martin's first year as a starting quarterback.
Cutcliffe's biggest challenge is improving the defense, especially against the run. Perhaps the hiring of Don Lindsey will help. Lindsey, who began his coaching career under Bear Bryant, joined Ole Miss after spending the last two years as the defensive coordinator with the British Columbia Lions of the Canadian Football League.
OffenseManning (6-4, 205) made the most of his first spring as the No. 1 quarterback. Taking twice as many snaps as last spring, he improved significantly.
"He was more in tune with what we were doing," Cutcliffe said. "He was good with his decision-making. He really improved in a lot of ways."
Cutcliffe still sees room for improvement, but it's more fine-tuning than anything else.
"He's got to continue to work on his accuracy," Cutcliffe said. "When I say accuracy, I'm talking about pinpoint accuracy."
Senior running back Joe Gunn (5-10, 200) has been overshadowed much of his career by Deuce McAllister, yet he still ranks fifth all-time on Ole Miss' career rushing list.
Bothered by injuries last year, Gunn rushed for 382 yards on 125 carries. The year before, he gained 951 yards and averaged 5.2 yards per carry.
"He was back healthy in the spring," Cutcliffe said. "He had the kind of spring I hoped he would have.
Senior Charles Stackhouse (6-2, 240) gives Ole Miss a solid blocker and receiver at fullback. He rushed for 182 yards on 37 carries (a 4.9-yard average) and caught 11 passes for 88 yards last year despite playing with an injured left knee, which has since been surgically repaired.
"Speed" is the key word at receiver. Cutcliffe believes he has assembled a cast with comparable speed to the ones he had at Tennessee.
The fastest of the bunch is sophomore Chris Collins (6-1, 190), who set the Mississippi high school record when he ran a 21.90 200 meters at Amite County High School in Liberty, Miss.
Collins earned a starting position in the spring opposite former junior college transfer Omar Rayford, a 6-1, 198-pound senior who had 66 catches his last year at Northwest Community College.
Senior Terrence Metcalf (6-3, 305), a preseason All-American, returns to anchor a line that returns three other starters -- senior guard Matt Koon (6-4, 297), junior center Ben Claxton (6-3, 281) and junior tackle Belton Johnson (6-5, 290).
Defense and special teamsA defense that gave up 4.6 yards rushing per carry last year is an obvious concern, and it starts with the front line, which is the smallest and one of the least experienced in the SEC.
Senior tackle Anthony Sims (6-3, 268) is the only returning starter. The rest of the front four -- senior tackle Kenny Jackson (6-3, 315) and sophomore ends Charlie Anderson (6-4, 225) and Josh Cooper (6-4, 230) -- doesn't have a single start.
"[Anderson and Cooper] are young players who have played very little," Lindsey said. "They're just not very experienced football players. But I feel they're potentially good players."
The return of junior middle linebacker Eddie Strong (6-3, 235) is a huge boost for the linebacking corps. Strong, who was a preseason All-SEC pick in 2000, missed the entire season after suffering a stress fracture in his left foot during preseason drills. The injury was devastating for a defense that was already spread thin.
Junior strong safety Syniker Taylor (6-0, 205) and senior cornerback Justin Coleman (5-11, 175) are the returning starters in the secondary.
Sophomore Lee Rogers and freshman Jonathan Nichols will vie for the place-kicking job after the loss of Les Binkley.
Bottom lineOle Miss has a potentially outstanding offense and potentially porous defense. The schedule will help both.
The non-conference schedule consists of Murray State, Middle Tennessee State and Arkansas State. The SEC schedule includes Vanderbilt and Kentucky, the worst teams in the East. Aside from its game at Kentucky, Ole Miss won't have to travel farther than Auburn, Ala.
Ole Miss can't expect to match its eight victories of Cutcliffe's first season. In fact, the Rebels will be hard-pressed to match its seven victories of last year. But with a Manning at quarterback, six victories and a fifth consecutive bowl could be a lot of fun.