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ASK OLE MISS COACH HOUSTON NUTT ABOUT LAST SEASON'S opener and he sounds like somebody whose dog got run over. "Ohhhhhh," he groans. "Ohhhhhh. It was just horrible. Horrible." The Rebels lost 49--48 in double overtime to Jacksonville State (from what used to be called Division I-AA). The two-time defending Cotton Bowl champs spiraled from there to a 4--8 record. It didn't help that the Rebels had to play in the ridiculously competitive SEC West, where the other five teams finished in the AP poll's top 15. No doubt about it: The Rebels faced a rebuild.
This year's foundation is the offensive line, which has all five regulars returning plus five others who started at least one game. "The best athletes in the world are on the SEC defensive line, and if we can hold them off, we've got a chance," Nutt says. When it comes to chances, running backs Brandon Bolden (976 yards last year) and Jeff Scott (429) will get plenty. What's not clear is who's going to hand them the ball now that QB Jeremiah Masoli's one-year career at Ole Miss is over. Last year's backup, Nathan Stanley, left school in April. That leaves Ole Miss with three QBs who weren't on the roster last year: redshirt junior Randall Mackey, West Virginia transfer Barry Brunetti and juco transfer Zack Stoudt (son of former Steelers backup Cliff Stoudt). All three might get shots in the fall.
Quarterback play won't matter much, though, if the Rebels defend like they did in 2010—they gave up 35 points a game, worst in the SEC. "The biggest difference between last year and the Cotton Bowl years was leadership, especially on defense," Nutt says. "We have got to have players who take charge." The spring brought bad news and good news. Linebacker D.T. Shackelford tore his ACL and will miss the season. But end Kentrell Lockett, who missed all but three games in 2010 with his own knee injury, is back for an NCAA-approved sixth year.
Nutt says his players have been inspired by the former Rebels in the NFL who return to Oxford in the off-season—the Steelers' Mike Wallace, the Chiefs' Dexter McCluster, the Ravens' Michael Oher and the Giants' Eli Manning, who brought along big bro Peyton and dad (and Rebels icon) Archie. The inspiration better set in quick. Ole Miss opens against BYU. "Once again," Nutt says, "we'll know where we stand right away."
COACH Houston Nutt (4th year) 22--16 (10--14 in SEC)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR David Lee
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR Tyrone Nix
2010 RECORD 4--8 (1--7, 6th in SEC West)