- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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OXFORD, Miss. -- For a school with an enrollment of only 18,000 students, Ole Miss boasts a proud and rich football tradition.
At Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, where lathered Ole Miss fans still chant "Hotty Toddy," banners celebrate the school's three national championships (each won before 1962) and six SEC titles (each won before 1963).
In a town in which many locals say author William Faulkner's presence can still be felt at the Oxford Square, it seemed as if Ole Miss football also stood still for too long.
The Rebels' most recent era of national prominence came nearly four decades ago, when quarterback Archie Manning -- the school's most famous son -- was a two-time All-American and led his team to a Sugar Bowl victory during his junior season in 1969.
Manning's youngest son, Eli, was a record-setting quarterback for the Rebels, too, three decades after his father left the school. Eli Manning led Ole Miss to a 10-win season and a Cotton Bowl victory during his senior season in 2003.
But until coach Houston Nutt arrived from Arkansas last season, Ole Miss football was more about tailgating in the Grove than the actual games themselves during most seasons.
The Rebels have long known how to throw one hell of a party. There just wasn't always much to celebrate afterward.
After Eli Manning left and became the No. 1 pick in the 2004 NFL draft, coach David Cutcliffe was fired after a 4-7 finish in 2004. The Rebels hired USC assistant Ed Orgeron to replace him, and the hotshot recruiter from the West Coast lasted only three seasons before being fired with a 10-25 record.
Nutt, who had been unceremoniously dumped after winning 75 games and two SEC West titles in 10 seasons at Arkansas, inherited an Ole Miss roster long on talent but short on winning. In the two seasons before Nutt arrived, the Rebels lost 14 of 16 games against SEC opponents, including a woeful 0-8 mark in 2007.
In his first season at Ole Miss, Nutt led the Rebels to a 9-4 finish. They upset defending national champion LSU in Baton Rouge and eventual national champion Florida in Gainesville (the Gators' only loss of the season). Ole Miss won its last six games, including a 47-34 victory over Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl.
Oddly enough, the Rebels look a lot like the team they beat in their final game last season. Texas Tech was the hot team heading into 2008 and won its first 10 games. The Red Raiders climbed as high as No. 2 in the BCS standings before finishing 11-2.
With 14 starters returning, the expectations are just as high for the Rebels heading into the 2009 season. Some preseason publications have already pegged Ole Miss as a top-10 team.
"That's why our antennas have been up since January," Nutt said, after an Ole Miss practice earlier this spring. "We want to be ready for anyone that thinks we're already there, because we're not. I'm just hoping we can continue with that hunger and unsatisfied appetite. We're in unchartered territory."
Since Archie Manning left Ole Miss after the 1970 season, the Rebels have been ranked in the preseason Associated Press poll only twice. The 1972 team started the season ranked No. 19 in the country but finished 5-5. The 2000 team, which was led by record-setting tailback Deuce McAllister, debuted at No. 18 before finishing 7-5.
Nutt says he's determined to make sure his team doesn't suffer a similar fate this coming season.
"You have to stay on them," Nutt said. "You can't relax. If you're feeling really nice and relaxed, your team is going to feed off that confidence. You've got to be hungry. You can't be satisfied."
Junior quarterback Jevan Snead knows all about high expectations. He arrived at Texas in 2006, one year after Vince Young led the Longhorns to their first national championship in 35 years. Snead played behind Colt McCoy as a freshman and then transferred to Ole Miss the next year. He sat out the 2007 season under NCAA transfer rules.
"The big thing that got us there last year was working hard and not listening to what people said about us," Snead said. "Nobody expected us to do anything last year. The same people that are picking us this year were picking against us last year. It doesn't mean anything."
Snead is a big reason the Rebels are expected to be even better this season. In his first season in the SEC, Snead threw for 2,762 yards with 26 touchdowns. He threw 11 interceptions in his first eight games, but rebounded to throw for 1,089 yards with 14 touchdowns and 3 picks in his last five.
"There are so many things I can do to get better," Snead said. "Decision-making is obviously a big part of it. I think not being experienced and not being comfortable last year was a big part of it. I'm more comfortable now."
Snead will feel even more comfortable this coming season if the Rebels can find a replacement for left tackle Michael Oher. The mammoth All-American protected Snead's blind side last season, and his absence has created a glaring hole on the offensive line heading into Saturday's Grove Bowl spring game.
Bradley Sowell, a 310-pound sophomore, is the top candidate to replace Oher. Sowell was mostly used as a blocking tight end last season.
The Rebels also will have a new starting left guard, after senior Reid Neely moved to the right side. Sophomore Rishaw Johnson is working with the first-team offense at left guard this spring.
"The left side is what keeps us awake at night," Nutt said.
The Rebels also must replace wide receiver Mike Wallace, who caught seven touchdown passes and averaged an SEC-best 20.1 yards per catch last season. But top receivers Shay Hodge and Dexter McCluster are both back. McCluster was one of only two SEC players to finish in the top 10 in rushing yards, receiving yards, receptions and all-purpose yards in 2008 (Florida's Percy Harvin was the other). Hodge tied for the team lead with 44 catches and led in touchdowns with eight.
"I know we have the weapons to be good," McCluster said.
The Ole Miss defense, the team's strength last season, has dominated much of the spring. Eight starters are back from a defense that finished No. 19 nationally in total defense (307.2 yards per game) and No. 20 in scoring defense (19 points per game).
The Rebels must replace All-America defensive tackle Peria Jerry, one of the country's best run stoppers. He was the emotional leader of a defense that ranked No. 4 in the country in rush defense (85.5 yards per game), and tied for the lead among FBS teams with 8.62 tackles for loss per game.
Defensive end Greg Hardy, who had 8½ sacks in 2008, is sidelined while recovering from foot surgery. Nutt said Hardy isn't expected to be back at full speed until late June.
"To replace Jerry on the inside is going to be a group effort," defensive end Kentrell Lockett said. "It's going to take the nose guard and everybody else to replace what that guy brought to the table."
Less than five months before the Sept. 5 opener at Memphis, the table seems to be set for one of the more memorable seasons in Ole Miss history.
The Rebels don't play SEC powers Florida or Georgia during the regular season, and most of their most difficult games will be played at home. Arkansas, Tennessee, LSU and defending SEC West champion Alabama will all play in Oxford this season.
As if Ole Miss fans needed even more reason to party under the oak, elm and magnolia trees of the Grove.
"We've been hearing about it quite a bit, because everyone around here is really excited," Snead said. "That's one thing Coach Nutt said when he first got here: This place is hungry for a championship."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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