The Ole Miss team that closed out the season with six straight victories provided a study in the good things that can happen when a team buys into a coach's philosophy and begins to believe in itself. "Our confidence," Nutt says, "just exploded." It also served as a reminder (unnecessary, perhaps, on a campus whose 18-mph speed limit commemorates number 18, Archie Manning) of the importance of good quarterback play.
By the end of the 2006 season Jevan Snead had seen his future at Texas, and it was taking snaps in garbage time behind Colt McCoy. "That wasn't how I'd pictured my college career," recalls Snead, a 6'3" junior from Stephenville, Texas, who had originally committed to Florida then switched to the Longhorns after Tebow pledged to the Gators. "So I decided to look around."
He transferred to Oxford and sat out the NCAA-required year, his presence on the scout team a daily torment to then coach Ed Orgeron and his staff. The best quarterback on the roster, by far, wouldn't be eligible until the '08 season, by which time the staff would end up fired. Snead is strong-armed and accurate, but his major flaw at first was his unwillingness to give up on plays. "For the first five games [of last season]," Nutt recalls, "he was trying so hard—forcing everything, throwing it to their guys. Then he realized, Hey, I don't have to be Superman on every play. And the game just slowed down for him."
Who needs Superman when you've got the Wild Rebel, the innovative single-wing formation that Nutt brought with him from Arkansas? Enter Dexter McCluster, a wide receiver minding his own business, running sprints in the team's indoor facility in February 2008 when Nutt asked him, "Have you ever played running back?" It was college football's equivalent of being discovered in Schwab's drugstore. "As a matter of fact," replied McCluster, who had rushed for 2,490 yards and 39 touchdowns as a senior at Largo (Fla.) High, "I've been a running back all my life."
McCluster was soon lining up in the backfield and even taking snaps out of the shotgun, just as Darren McFadden had done in the Wild Hog at Arkansas. "He is electric," says Nutt of his latest multiple threat. "He can catch it, run it, throw it, hand it off." Between his rushing, receiving and returns, McCluster averaged 98.5 all-purpose yards per game in '08, and he was named offensive MVP of the Rebels' 47--34 Cotton Bowl win over Texas Tech. The senior's only problem, says Nutt, is that, at 5'8", "he has trouble seeing over the line."
Mississippi's problem, going into Nutt's second season, is that it won't be sneaking up on anyone. "We understand that people won't underestimate us anymore," says sackmeister Greg Hardy, a senior defensive end. "They're going to prepare for us a different way. We're O.K. with that."
They're O.K. with it because of the confidence spawned by the come-from-behind victory at Florida. For example: "We're down 14 points in the Cotton Bowl, but we knew we were going to make something happen," says McCluster. "We've got so many people believing right now, it's something we never had before."
It helps that the Rebels are flat-out loaded along the defensive line (page 76). And it helps that Mississippi's toughest SEC opponents—Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee and LSU—must come to Oxford.
To Tebow's chagrin, the Rebels are not on Florida's schedule in '09. Unless the teams meet in an SEC championship game, they will not play again until at least 2012—at which point it will have been at least 1,810 days since Florida defeated Ole Miss.