TARGET FILE: at Mississippi [10.04.08]

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Give credit to Mississippi for one thing: Never before has a team hired a half-crazy coach and vaulted themselves into the ranks of the projected bowl-eligible as the Rebels have this year.

Sure, hiring Houston Nutt wasn't the only thing Ole Miss did in the interim. Of necessity, they got rid of Ed Orgeron, easily one of the most disastrous SEC hires of this decade. Jevan Snead, a refugee from beneath Colt McCoy on the Texas depth chart, is now eligible to play for the Rebels. And NY Times best-seller star Michael Oher decided to pass up the NFL and continue to anchor the offensive line.

But, still. Ole Miss lost nine games last year by an average of more than two touchdowns (14.9 ppg). They did have three games they lost by a touchdown or less -- but all three of those teams are either just as talented as last year or expected to be better.

I'm not saying Houston Nutt isn't the guy to change things in Oxford; I believe he was an inspired choice. Looking for results this year, though, seems a touch foolish.

OFFENSE

O-line. Oher might be one of the best linemen in the nation. And at the invaluable left tackle position, he single-handedly increases the respect anyone has to have for the entire line, which returns three other starters to boot. ADVANTAGE: OLE MISS

Quarterback. The aforementioned Snead comes in to try to bring some much-needed quality to the signal-caller position. At Texas, he was 26-of-49 for 371 yards, 2 TDs and 2 INTs while rushing for 87 yards and another score. This means he actually has more experience than Tommy Beecher. ADVANTAGE: OLE MISS

Wide receivers. The returning wideouts are not bad; in fact, leader Mike Wallace snagged 38 passes for 716 yards and 6 TDs. Shay Hodge, Dexter McCluster and Marshay Green (likely headed to CB) all had at least 27 receptions. Ole Miss might have more depth than the Gamecocks, but they don't have Kenny McKinley. ADVANTAGE: PUSH

Running backs. The top returning rusher is WR Dexter McCluster, with six for 63 yards. They lose top RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Former QB Brent Schaeffer was their third-leading rusher, but that could be replaced at least partially by Snead. Eventually, though, someone else has to carry the ball. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA

DEFENSE

Defensive line. This was shaping up to be almost as good as its counterpart on the other side of the ball. So much for that. Injuries have claimed 75 percent of the projected starting line, including two of three returning starters. Ted Laurent and Peria Jerry might return in time for the South Carolina game, but it's fair to ask if they'll be 100 percent at that time. Sure, Jerrell Powe has finally enrolled after waiting for a decade to be declared eligible, but he also hasn't played since the Carter Administration. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA

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Powe reports to training camp.

Linebackers. Ashlee Palmer stands out with 7 TFL, seven passes broken up and three picks. The other LBs are also pretty solid, but we know how strong the Gamecocks are here. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA

Secondary. Nothing really commends this group to anyone, including Ole Miss fans. After spring practice, Red Solo Cup labeled the secondary "one of the thinnest positions on the roster" and found unqualified praise for only Dustin Mouzon. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA

SPECIAL TEAMS

Field goals were mediocre, punts were so-so and kickoffs were bad. Kick returns (21.5 yards average) and punt returns (6.4 yards average) were also nothing to brag about. But hey, all the starters return, so that counts for something. Right? ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA

COACHING

You're tempted to say that Ole Miss is even or maybe even a smidge better than South Carolina in this department. Houston Nutt, after all, has had more success in recent years than HBC, whether we'd like to admit it or not. But that was largely because of Darren McFadden and Felix Jones. Oh, and Tyrone Nix went from the Gamecocks' sideline to the Rebels'. That seals it. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA

RESULT

Lots of the punditocracy and blogosphere see this as a push or even give Mississippi the edge. Forgive me if I don't see it. Granted, Houston Nutt's teams have always played the Gamecocks tough, and Ole Miss has dominated in recent years. But the teams haven't played in the Spurrier Era, and the Rebels have to go from -- well, whatever Ed Orgeron was trying to do on offense -- to Nutt's run-based system. Without McFadden or Jones. It'll be close, but the Gamecocks prevail. LIKELY WIN

THE REST OF THEIR SEASON

That's not to say that Ole Miss will be dreadful this year. (They couldn't possibly be worse than they were under the Orgeron.) Memphis, Samford, Vanderbilt, at Arkansas and Louisiana-Monroe are all very winnable games. That already gives them the most victories in a year than the 10-win season in 2003. Throw in an upset at Wake Forest, at Alabama or even vs. South Carolina or a win against Mississippi State, and the Rebels are bowling. 6-6

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