This time last year, numerous folks were talking about Ole Miss as a legitimate contender for the SEC title and a potential sleeper in the national title race.
This year, a lot of those same folks are wondering if the Rebels can finish in the top half of the SEC West and qualify for a bowl.
The Rebels did not do well as the "hunted" last season. QB Jevan Snead underwhelmed and the offensive line might have underachieved a bit.
This season, coach Houston Nutt is back in his usual position of being the "hunter" and it could pay off.
The early season schedule allows for a quick start, and the Rebels -- if they can find a consistent quarterback -- could pull a surprise or two.
THE SCHEME: This is a multiple scheme that features a little bit of everything. Nutt is the coach who popularized the "Wildcat" formations when coaching Arkansas. But everything is built around a power running game, which always has been the focal point of Nutt's offenses.
STAR POWER: There is lots of star power to replace with the likes of RB Dexter McCluster and WR Shay Hodge gone. McCluster paced the Rebels with 1,169 yards rushing and ranked second on the squad with 44 catches. Hodge led the SEC with 70 grabs for 1,135 yards. Keep an eye on RB Brandon Bolden. He possesses home-run ability and is a good between-the-tackles runner.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Randall Mackey, a quarterback from East Mississippi CC, isn't in line to start, but look for him to be used in the "Wild Rebel" formation that Nutt loves. Mackey is a developing passer who is ultra-athletic.
STRONGEST AREA: McCluster is gone, but the Rebels still are loaded with playmakers at running back with Bolden, Enrique Davis and Rodney Scott. Each is capable of a big play. Bolden ranked second on the team in rushing in 2009 with 614 yards. A physical 220-pounder, Bolden and his backfield mates need to run well to take pressure off the new quarterback.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Where to begin with just three starters back? This unit is being overhauled. Coordinator Kent Austin left to become coach at Cornell. Nutt will have co-coordinators, promoting line coach Mike Markuson and hiring former Alabama coordinator Dave Rader. But this is Nutt's offense, and he pushes the buttons. Goal No. 1 is to cut down on turnovers. The Rebels committed an SEC-high 31 last season and finished 11th in turnover margin. That puts pressure on the new quarterback taking the place of Snead, who was a major disappointment last season with an SEC-high 20 interceptions. Sophomore Nathan Stanley looks like the heir apparent after separating himself from redshirt freshman Raymond Cotton in the spring. Also, keep a watch on the interior of the line, which is new.
THE SCHEME: Led by standout coordinator Tyrone Nix, who was wooed by Florida, this unit may have to carry a big load while the offense rounds into form. The Rebels operate from a 4-3 set that plays with an aggressive bent; it's all about making big plays to get foes in compromising down-and-distance situations.
STAR POWER: Massive NT Jerrell Powe is a big-time anchor inside vs. the run. It has taken him a while because of some academic issues, but Powe finally is becoming the star he was predicted to become out of high school. He is strong at the point of attack and has a quick first step. He is part of a four-man tackle rotation that should be one of the best in the SEC.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Insiders say E Wayne Dorsey could be a pass-rushing force after playing at Mississippi Gulf Coast CC. Good thing, because Ole Miss needs someone to bring the heat off of the edge with Es Greg Hardy and Marcus Tillman gone. Dorsey and senior Kentrell Lockett could form a productive end duo. Dorsey arrived in time for spring drills and impressed. He needs to produce, as his projected backup is a true freshman. Staffers also are excited about Mississippi Gulf Coast CC FS Damien Jackson, a headhunter with ball skills who also went through spring practice.
STRONGEST AREA: Jonathan Cornell and Allen Walker provide the foundation for a strong linebacking corps and a salty front seven. Each is difficult to block. Cornell ranked third on the team in stops last year (79) and Walker was sixth (51).
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The secondary is breaking in two new cornerbacks. The staff is counting on senior Jeremy McGee and junior Marcus Temple taking over for Marshay Green and Cassius Vaughn. Depth at the position is iffy, but redshirt freshman Charles Sawyer has a big upside. Jackson needs to make an immediate impact at free safety. SS Johnny Brown is steady.
The punting looks set with the return of Tyler Campbell, who was No. 12 in the nation with a 43.9-yard average as a freshman. But who will kick? Bryson Rose looks like the leader of a three-man race to replace Joshua Shene. It will be important for a steady kicker to emerge for an offense that will need all the points it can get. WR Jesse Grandy is back to return kickoffs after returning two for touchdowns and averaging 25.7 yards per return in 2009. But a new punt returner is needed; it could end up being Grandy. The punt coverage was adequate last season, but the kickoff coverage needs vast improvement.
There is good news and bad news. The good: The schedule sets up for a 5-0 start. But after that, the going gets tougher with road games against Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee and LSU. The Rebels' season will be defined during a three-game stretch from Oct. 16-30, when Ole Miss plays at Alabama, at Arkansas and welcomes Auburn.
Last season, Ole Miss was a dark-horse pick to win the SEC West. This season, the Rebels may be fortunate to finish in the top half of the division after losing many key players from a 9-4 team that failed to live up to expectations. Still, Nutt has done a good job in his two seasons, capping each one with a Cotton Bowl triumph. Nutt's top priority is finding a quarterback to replace Snead, who left a year early after a disappointing junior season. But it will be just as vital to replace McCluster and Hodge. In the end, this looks like a rebuilding season in Oxford.