Ole Miss out to escape its past
For years now, the University of Mississippi has been engaged in a delicate attempt to extricate its athletic programs from some troubling talismans of its past. Confederate flags are out, as is mascot Colonel Rebel -- amid great rancor.
Where many see racism, some fans see tradition. But for the athletic programs this goes well beyond philosophy and morality. In coldly utilitarian terms, recruiting football and basketball players is awfully difficult when opponents are labeling your school racist.
So Ole Miss is in the painful but committed process of becoming New Miss. Time to modernize. It cannot change shameful history, but it can at least make its benighted legacy less overt by having reminders walking the sidelines or waving in the stands. Getting rid of the plantation-owner mascot seems like a wise place to start.
But if there is one throwback Mississippi would love to embrace, it's on the football field. What the fans wouldn't do for a return to the era of Johnny Vaught, big-time bowl games, SEC championships and Archie Manning.
The consensus was that the surest way to get there for a relatively small and modestly-funded school was to procure a Manning legacy. Peyton said no, and broke hearts from Tupelo to Gulfport. Eli said yes, and nostalgia-driven hope bloomed.
For four years, hope has gone only partially fulfilled. Eli Manning, now a fifth-year senior, has had a brilliant college football career. And the Rebels have had success, winning at least seven games every year he's been on campus. But there have been no big-time bowls, no SEC championships, not even a West Division title -- something all five other schools in the West have claimed since the SEC expanded in 1992.
Today, as the school deconstructs its old negative legacy, the football program has five games remaining to recapture its old glory. It's now or never for Archie's boy at Ole Miss.
Here's the catch: Eli Manning and his teammates find themselves on Groundhog Day, Mississippi football style. Talk about a past you want to bury.
The Rebels are 5-2 and starting to feel chesty. Which is about where the alarm clock goes off and we start all over again.
The Rebels were 6-1 and feeling chesty in 2001. They were 6-2 and feeling chesty in 2000. They were 7-2 and feeling chesty in 1999. They were 6-2 and feeling chesty in '98 ...
And they've never been able to finish the job. Last year Ole Miss went 2-5 after that 5-1 start. The year before it was 1-3. The year before that, 1-3. In '99, 1-2. In '98, 1-3.
So much hope, followed by so little SEC hardware.
The past two years, the season has come unsprung against this week's opponent, Arkansas. Last time they played in Oxford, nobody will ever forget it: seven overtimes, four-plus hours, and ultimately a 58-56 loss.
"Longest game in the world," Hogs coach Houston Nutt called it, correctly.
After that the Rebels cratered, losing three straight. Last year Ole Miss was ripped 48-28 by the Razorbacks and went on to lost three straight tough games to Auburn, Georgia and LSU.
The closing schedule is once again brutal: Arkansas is followed by South Carolina, Auburn, LSU and Mississippi State in Jackie Sherrill's final Egg Bowl. But these Rebels are not those Rebels.
Eli Manning is as operating at the highest level of his career. Now he has a running game behind him, a run defense on the other side of him and a sense of urgency all around him. This isn't just an all-Eli production anymore.
"Eli's always been great, but he's so much better this year," Nutt said. "And you've got a running game going now. Basically, the last couple years we felt like we could stop the run and gang up on the pass. Now you've got to gang up on both, and that's the poison you have to choose."
Ole Miss coach David Cutcliffe has been harping all year on improving a running game that ranked last in the SEC in 2002, averaging just 94 yards per game on the ground. It has taken hold, especially in the last three weeks.
Sprinkling carries around among as many as five backs per game and working behind a banged-up but productive offensive line, Mississippi has cranked out 200-plus yard on the ground in three of the last fives games. The Rebels are 4-1 in that stretch.
"It goes all the way back to a commitment last spring practice," Cutcliffe said. "The last two years we got real one-dimensional. We weren't as good as we can be. Our backs are better, our line, our receivers, everyone is involved with that. And it's made our defense better to emphasize running the ball (and keeping that unit off the field more)."
Combine that with Manning's incredible sharpness throwing to an array of veteran receivers and you have the SEC's No. 1 offense in points and yards. The pass defense has been ghastly (especially in being strafed by Texas Tech) but the run defense is solid -- and Ole Miss' scoring punch means that it doesn't require that unit to totally shut down anyone.
It's a promising position for Mississippi, taking its most well-rounded team in recent years this deep into the season with an unbeaten league record and a shot at that first SEC West title. But Mississippi has been here before.
A school looking to distance itself from some of its past would like to relive just a little of it, riding a Manning back to glory.
Pat Forde covers college football for the Louisville Courier-Journal.