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His job is made easier by two native Texans, running back Kendall (Spud) Hunter and wide receiver Dez Bryant, both juniors. Hunter rushed for 119.6 yards per game in '08, though he barely played in the second half of several games. "We probably cost him 400 yards," Gundy figures, "but we couldn't take the chance of getting him injured." Bryant, who in high school had his heart set on playing for LSU ("They wouldn't call me back," he says, "so I came here"), averaged 113.9 receiving yards a game and caught 19 TD passes despite facing double-team coverage over the last nine games.
Among the challenges of coaching Bryant, a 6'2", 215-pound pogo stick, is keeping him calm—"I just get so much ... rage," he says, with a smile—when he isn't getting the ball. Says Gundy, "We have to tell him, 'Dez, here's the deal: You've got two guys on you and one running toward you. So Kendall's going to run for 200 yards today, and you're still going to be a first-round pick.'"
On a recent July morning Hunter and Bryant are lounging in the team's new, 14,000-square-foot locker room with its state-of-the-art stalls, each with an electrical outlet, a deodorizing system and a backlit Oklahoma State helmet etched in glass. "When we first came," Hunter recalls, "we talked all the time about how we were going to change the program."
"It feels kind of unreal," Bryant adds, "because all those things we talked about are coming true."
But it's tough to move up in the world when your defense has established permanent residence in the bottom third of the national rankings (93rd in total defense a year ago, with an anemic 15 sacks). "We've had one defense in about the last 25 years that's been respectable," Gundy laments. "We haven't had the speed, the depth, the D-line to rush the passer. You can't get to the passer in this league, you're in trouble." Solution: Gundy poached Bill Young from Miami last January, luring the well-regarded coordinator to fill a vacancy at his alma mater. Young, whose makeover of the Kansas defense was instrumental in the Jayhawks' 2007 run to the Orange Bowl, specializes in putting heat on the QB, by any means necessary (page 77). No one is asking him to work miracles. "You get two or three key stops a game," says Gundy, "you don't end up 9--4. You end up 11--2 or 12--1. Last year we lost to Texas by four down there. One more stop, we're tied for the [South Division]."
Gundy's goal upon taking over as coach five years ago was to become a fixture in the top 20. "And then, when you get the right players and the right chemistry and a few breaks," he says, "you can make a run."
In a peculiar exercise in masochism, Mississippi fans kept track. They knew to the day how long it had been since their team had won an SEC game. That grim total reached 665 last Sept. 20. On that day the Rebels turned the ball over half a dozen times and blew a 17--7 lead on their way to a 23--17 loss to Vanderbilt. The next day first-year coach Houston Nutt took an interesting tack. He did not raise his voice. He made the squad watch "five plays where everybody's doing everything right. I want you to see what that looks like.
"Guess what, guys," Nutt intoned, once the players had seen themselves at their best. "We go to the Swamp this week, and if you believe everybody outside this room, we're going to get beat by 33 points. Here's what I'd like for you to do: Think about those five plays, know the rules, take care of the ball, relax and just turn it loose down there. Let's see what happens."
What happened on Sept. 27, of course, was that Ole Miss won its first SEC game in 672 days, 31--30 over No. 4 Florida. The defeat inspired Tebow's Promise: the vow, now immortalized on a plaque on the Gainesville campus, that A LOT OF GOOD WILL COME OUT OF THIS. Some good came of it for the victors as well. Just not right away. The Rebels dropped their next two games, then headed to Arkansas, Nutt's previous place of employment. "We go to Fayetteville in a fairly hostile environment"—he smiles at his own understatement—"and find a way to win. Then we just took off."