Coach:Houston Nutt (9-4 in one season; 120-74 overall in 16 seasons). | Staff In 2008: 9-4 overall, 5-3 in SEC (second in SEC West). Beat Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl.
Returning starters: Offense: 6. Defense: 8. Special teams: 1. | Depth Chart Final 2008 Rivals.com ranking: 15th. | Complete Final 2008 Rankings Past four Rivals.com national recruiting rankings: 18th in 2009, 29th in '08, 27th in '07, 16th in '06.
THE SCHEME: Ole Miss runs a pro-style attack, but the Rebels do incorporate some spread principles and often use three wide receivers with no fullback.
STAR POWER: Junior Jevan Snead enters the season as one of the top 10 quarterbacks in the country. Snead was playing as well as any quarterback in the nation by the end of last season. Snead threw 16 touchdown passes and only three interceptions in the Rebels' six-game winning streak that closed the season. The only concern regarding Snead is that he feasted on the weaker defenses Ole Miss faced in the latter part of the season after throwing 10 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions in the Rebels' first seven games. WR Dexter McCluster is the most dangerous multipurpose threat in the SEC now that former Florida star Percy Harvin has moved on to the NFL. McCluster finished 2008 with 655 rushing yards and 625 receiving yards. He compiled 180 all-purpose yards in the Cotton Bowl victory over Texas Tech.
IMPACT NEWCOMERS: Although Ole Miss returns six of its top seven receivers from last season, true freshman WR Pat Patterson likely will earn immediate playing time and get plenty of passes thrown in his direction as the Rebels look for more playmakers on the outside. Patterson was the No. 50 overall prospect and No. 4 receiver in the nation; he caught a combined 115 passes for 2,711 yards and 37 touchdowns his final two seasons at Macon (Miss.) Noxubee County High.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: RB Brandon Bolden rushed for 542 yards and five touchdowns as a freshman last season. Don't be surprised if he doubles those totals this season. Bolden closed the season with a 101-yard performance in the Cotton Bowl victory over Texas Tech and exited spring practice ahead of 2008 starter Cordera Eason on the depth chart. Bolden and Eason likely will split carries this season, but Bolden has the greater upside.
STRONGEST AREA: Ole Miss is strong at the skill positions. Snead gives the Rebels an All-America candidate at quarterback. Eason and Bolden combined to rush for 1,189 yards and eight touchdowns last season. Shay Hodge has caught 14 touchdown passes over the past two seasons. McCluster may be the biggest weapon of all, as he was named the offensive MVP of the Cotton Bowl. McCluster and Harvin were the only SEC players to rank among the league's top 10 in rushing yards, receiving yards, receptions and all-purpose yards last season.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Ole Miss returns only two full-time starters on the line, though one is T John Jerry, who has a chance at All-America honors. First-round pick Michael Oher has departed after starting at left tackle for the past four seasons; his likely replacement is Bradley Sowell, who was primarily used as a blocking tight end last season. The biggest concern is the line's lack of depth. Ole Miss should be fine up front as long as the starters stay healthy. If anyone gets hurt, the Rebels could face serious consequences.
THE SCHEME: The Rebels use a traditional 4-3 set, but they sometimes open with five defensive backs and two linebackers. A lack of proven depth in the secondary could hurt this season, though.
STAR POWER: Senior E Greg Hardy has all sorts of talent, but he has battled injuries and off-field problems throughout his career. He didn't make a single start last season, yet he is one of the nation's top pass rushers. Hardy missed four games with a foot injury last season and still finished with 8.5 sacks. He also recorded 10 sacks in just 10 games two years ago. Hardy heads into his senior season with 32.5 tackles for loss and 21.5 sacks. He missed spring practice to recover from foot surgery, then suffered minor injuries in a car accident in late July. If he manages to stay healthy all season - and remain out of the coaches' doghouse - Hardy should rank among the NCAA leaders in sacks and tackles for loss.
IMPACT NEWCOMERS: Freshman SS Darius Barksdale arrives from Chatham (Va.) Hargrave Military Academy as the No. 13 prep school prospect in the nation. He should provide immediate depth. CB Charles Sawyer could work his way into the playing rotation as a true freshman.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: Senior LB Patrick Trahan is eager to make up for lost time. Trahan began his college career at Auburn and spent a season at Northwest Mississippi Community College before finally arriving at Ole Miss last season. Trahan didn't gain his academic eligibility last year until preseason camp was beginning, and he didn't work himself into shape until late in the season. Now that he's finally found a home at Ole Miss, Trahan could emerge as the Rebels' best linebacker. He was one of the team's best players, regardless of position, during spring practice. He heads into the preseason as the likely starter at weakside linebacker. If he continues his rapid progress, Trahan just might challenge for All-SEC honors.
STRONGEST AREA: Even after losing first-round pick Peria Jerry to the NFL, Ole Miss boasts one of the nation's deepest and strongest lines. The Rebels have so many talented ends that Hardy spent last season backing up returning starters Marcus Tillman and Kentrell Lockett. Ole Miss also returns T Ted Laurent, who recorded seven tackles for loss last season. The Rebels also believe they can get a breakthrough season from former five-star T Jerrell Powe, a junior who was named the most improved player on the defense at the end of spring practice.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Ole Miss returns three starters in the secondary, but the Rebels ranked just 10th in the SEC in pass efficiency defense last season. The biggest concern isn't the starting defensive backs as much as the guys behind them. Ole Miss' lack of depth in the secondary could seriously damage the Rebels' SEC title hopes.
Senior K Joshua Shene is steady - 17-of-21 on field-goal attempts last season - but he lacks a big leg, as he was just 2-for-5 from 40 yards and beyond. Senior Justin Sparks is the new punter; he served as the kickoff specialist last season. Starting CB Marshay Green is a solid punt returner, and Bolden likely will be the new kick returner. The coverage teams were good last season.
Houston Nutt may not have left Arkansas on the best of terms, but he certainly found an ideal landing spot at Ole Miss. In his first season with the Rebels, Nutt won a Cotton Bowl title with a team that had gone winless in SEC competition a year earlier. He's reaping the benefits of predecessor Ed Orgeron's recruiting prowess, but these guys are performing much better for Nutt than they ever did for Orgeron. The one concern about Nutt is that he often did his best work at Arkansas when expectations weren't particularly high. How will he fare now that he's running a team that could open the season in the top 10? Offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Kent Austin worked wonders with Snead last season, while defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix helped Ole Miss rank fifth in the SEC in total defense. The Rebels had the league's worst defense in 2007, before Nix's arrival. The only change on the Rebels' staff involves the defensive line coach, where they essentially made a trade with Auburn. Tracy Rocker left Ole Miss for his alma mater; the Rebels replaced Rocker with Terry Price, who worked as the defensive ends coach on former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville's staff last season. Price had worked as Ole Miss' defensive ends coach from 1995-98. Rocker and Price also happen to be cousins.
A talent-laden roster isn't the only reason Ole Miss suddenly is being mentioned as a national title contender. Having the easiest schedule in the SEC certainly boosts the chances that the Rebels could have a magical season. Ole Miss should breeze through a non-conference schedule that includes a season-opening trip to Memphis and home games with Southeastern Louisiana, UAB and Northern Arizona. The Rebels' SEC schedule doesn't include matchups with Florida or Georgia, the two top teams in the Eastern Division. And the Rebels' two toughest challengers in the West - Alabama and LSU - must travel to Oxford. As easy as this schedule looks, it also offers the opportunity for upsets. The SEC opener at South Carolina occurs just five days after the home opener with Southeastern Louisiana. Having such a short turnaround before a nationally televised road game against Steve Spurrier and Co. could prove challenging. The Rebels also better not get caught looking ahead when they travel to Vanderbilt the week before the Alabama game. Vanderbilt won at Oxford last season when Snead threw four interceptions. Ole Miss also has a tricky home game with Arkansas and a trip to Auburn in between cakewalks with UAB and Northern Arizona.
Consider Ole Miss this season's version of Texas Tech, traditionally a mid-level program in a major conference that suddenly finds itself with a rare opportunity to challenge for a national title. The Rebels' starting lineup on both sides of the ball compares favorably to any SEC team other than Florida. Ole Miss also should benefit from playing a much easier conference schedule than LSU or Alabama. The big concern is Ole Miss' relative lack of depth. Ole Miss also isn't as accustomed to playing for these kinds of stakes as Alabama or LSU, though the experience of the Rebels' starting lineup could compensate for their relative unfamiliarity with the big stage. Ole Miss has plenty of reason to believe it can earn that long-awaited trip to Atlanta - it's the only school in the SEC West never to have advanced to the league title game - but we're guessing the Rebels settle for second place in the SEC West before heading to either the Capital One or Cotton bowls.