- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
IT WAS a sultry Saturday evening in the heart of Mississippi, and Houston Nutt, still sticky from the Gatorade bath he had received in the waning seconds of his team's 31--30 win over No. 4 Florida, stepped out of an airplane at Tupelo Regional Airport and into the night. The first-year Mississippi coach looked up, and on the other side of a nearby fence was a cheering throng of 500 rhapsodic Rebels fans. Then Nutt looked at his players. "They were just standing there," says Nutt, whose team, a three-touchdown underdog to the Gators, returned from Gainesville having toppled a top five team for the first time in three decades. "I had to tell them, 'Guess what? They're here for you. It's O.K. to go over there and say hello.' Apparently they're not used to this kind of attention. They looked like they were in a daze."
The college football universe was in much the same state. The Stunner in the Swamp turned out to be the biggest upset last Saturday, but the madness didn't end there. After greeting another 400 fans at the Rebels' practice facility when he and his team arrived on campus later that night, Nutt finally returned home to his 150-acre ranch outside of Oxford around eight o'clock and flipped on the living room television to watch No. 8 Alabama against No. 3 Georgia. He nearly fell out of his chair when he saw the score: Alabama 31, Georgia 0. At halftime. "It was a pretty wild day in college football, huh?" Nutt said on Sunday.
You think? During a 48-hour period that started last Thursday night, nine ranked teams lost, six to unranked squads. Three of the country's top four schools went down, including No. 1 USC (page 35) from the Pac-10. The top-ranked teams from three other BCS conferences—the SEC (Georgia), the Big Ten (Wisconsin) and the ACC (Wake Forest)—also fell. While there has been no paradigm-shifting upset on the scale of Appalachian State over Michigan, this season is proving to be just as unpredictable as 2007 was. "What we've seen in the first month of the season isn't an aberration," says BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall, whose Cougars moved up three spots to No. 8 in the AP poll—on a bye week. "What we're seeing is a leveling of the field."
The result is a volatile environment in which a school can go from being a borderline Top 25 team to the second-ranked program in the nation in five weeks—as Alabama, ranked No. 24 in the preseason, has done in coach Nick Saban's second year. Following his team's win in Athens, where the Crimson Tide steamrollered No. 3 Georgia 41--30, Alabama (5--0) suddenly looks like a national title contender. That Saban's crew pulled off the road win wasn't as surprising as how easily the Crimson Tide dismantled the Bulldogs. With quarterback John Parker Wilson (10 of 11 passes for 139 yards and a touchdown in the first half) operating behind an overpowering line, Alabama, which has yet to trail in a game and has outscored opponents 74--0 in the opening quarter, scored on each of its first five possessions. By halftime the Tide had turned the much-ballyhooed rumble between SEC rivals into a funeral for the nation's preseason No. 1 and its fans. At least the Dawgs dressed for the occasion. Georgia broke out its rarely worn black jerseys, and the Bulldogs faithful donned black as well.
In the Crimson Tide locker room, moments after the biggest win in his 18-game tenure in Tuscaloosa, Saban began his postgame address with a saliva-spewing rant about all the things his players did wrong in a sloppy second half. (Though Alabama was outscored 30--10 after intermission, a Crimson Tide victory was never in doubt.) After making it through his checklist, the 56-year-old grump paused, then smiled. The room exploded in giddy laughter.
THERE WASN'T a bigger winner on Saturday than the embattled Ole Miss football program, which came into the game with nine consecutive SEC defeats. This fall the scrutiny of the Rebels has been intense, and not just because of the new $6 million, 4,032-square-foot high-definition scoreboard (touted as having the largest HD display in the SEC) that now towers over the north end zone at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Even though the Rebels had floundered through four straight losing seasons, including a 3--9 mark last year, and even though their sophomore quarterback, Jevan Snead, had thrown only 49 college passes before the '08 season, expectations were high for a once proud school reenergized by the hiring of Nutt last November. "The moment it hit me how passionate the fans are here was the day I held my first press conference," says the 50-year-old Nutt, who, despite a 75--48 record at Arkansas, resigned last year after 10 tumultuous seasons in Fayetteville. "I was expecting to speak to a few reporters in a room with five cameras. But I find myself walking into the Ford Center, where there are 1,500 people packed in, and I later find out that 500 to 600 people were turned away at the door and waiting outside. I had goose bumps."
The Rebels headed to Gainesville with a 2--2 record—their pair of losses (at No. 20 Wake Forest on Sept. 6 and to Vanderbilt on Sept. 20) by a combined eight points. Snead could not have looked worse in the Vanderbilt defeat, tossing four interceptions as Ole Miss lost 23--17. In more ways than one the game against Florida presented an opportunity for redemption for the quarterback. When he stepped onto the field at high noon, he stood in a place where he once thought he'd become a star. In 2005 he had committed to Florida out of Stephenville (Texas) High, but then he found out that the Gators were heavily recruiting another high school All-America—a gunslinger from Jacksonville named Tim Tebow. Snead backed out of his commitment and signed with Texas. But redshirt freshman Colt McCoy beat him out for the starting job in 2006, so at the end of that season Snead transferred to Mississippi.
Now here was Snead, facing Tebow in front of 90,106 fans—and it was the unheralded interloper who was the poised playmaker and the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner who appeared flustered. His team down 17--10 in the third quarter and facing a third-and-10 deep in Florida territory, Snead dumped a screen pass to running back Cordera Eason that went for an 18-yard touchdown. Then, with 5:26 left and the game tied at 24, Snead connected with a wide-open Shay Hodge on an 86-yard pass play that gave the Rebels the lead for good. "The corner fell off, and I knew I was going to be open, but I didn't expect the safety to miss it that bad," says Hodge. "I didn't think I was going to take it all the way."
Tebow, meanwhile, continued his disappointing encore to his Heisman season with another uneven performance. The junior quarterback fumbled once (the third-quarter turnover led to Eason's touchdown), missed open receivers and often held on to the ball too long as a ferocious Rebels pass rush sacked him three times. He did respond with a six-play, 68-yard touchdown drive that pulled the Gators to 31--30 with 3:28 left, but the Rebels' Kentrell Lockett broke through the line to block the extra point. Then, on fourth-and-one at the Ole Miss 32 with 41 seconds left, Tebow was stopped for no gain as he tried to run off right tackle out of the shotgun. "You have never seen any player in the entire country play as hard as I will play the rest of this season," an emotional Tebow said after the game. "And you'll never see someone push the rest of the team as hard as I will push everybody the rest of this season."
Though they tumbled to No. 12 in the rankings, the Gators are hardly out of the national title picture in what is shaping up as another crazy season. But Florida fans can't like the team's chances to run the table (three games against top 20 teams remain on the schedule) with coach Urban Meyer's offense looking as out of sync as it did against the Rebels. Though Percy Harvin, a wideout who occasionally lines up in the backfield, rushed for 82 yards, the Gators still aren't getting any production out of their running backs. And Tebow was limited to seven yards on 15 carries.