by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

The rewards for winning are great at Ole Miss. A lifetime bequest of affection and adoration is afforded to those who ascend the greatest heights. Take “Johnny Reb” himself, legendary coach Johnny Vaught, he who never experienced a losing season in charge of the Rebels between 1947-70, and ‘73. Still referred to reverentially in these parts, his legend even more luminous since his passing at age 96 in 2006, a patriarchal figure in the state and region for more than a half-century. Walk around “The Grove” before any Ole Miss game and you will undoubtedly bump into some of Vaught’s former players, and you’re never far from various tailgaters and revelers waxing nostalgic about the “the Vaught days” in Oxford. Even Time Magazine, which has rarely ventured into the realm of sport, found time to spotlight Vaught during a November, 1960 issue.

"By bigtime football standards, the whole operation (Ole Miss football) seems as pleasantly relaxed as a backyard barbecue. The players are almost all home-state boys. They perform in a modest stadium before informal crowds that are packed with friends and relatives. The games draw less national publicity than the price of cotton raised on nearby farms. But year in and year out, the University of Mississippi plays some of the finest football in the nation. The reason: Coach Johnny Vaught, 52, a bluff, leather-faced perfectionist who has so identified the success of his team with the prestige of the state that Mississippians long ago forgot his Texas origins and now regard him as a native son.

When he sets out to harvest the best of this bumper crop of high school stars, Coach Vaught is a shrewd and patient recruiter. He quietly notes that a degree from Ole Miss carries more weight than one from archrival Mississippi State. To hear him talk, Ole Miss football is a family affair. Eight of Vaught's assistants are graduates of the school, and most have been coaching there for a dozen years or more. Above all, Vaught extols state pride with the fervor of a militia colonel. "Boys we get from out of state can go home and never hear about Ole Miss football," he says. "But in Mississippi the game is talked about all year round. We like to get Mississippi boys, boys who love Ole Miss and want to win for her." Vaught flatly refuses to give a scholarship to a married man ("They're too much trouble, and they're bad for discipline"). He has equally firm notions about regulating the lives of his players. None may have a car during the season. The entire football team is housed in Miller Hall, a segregation made easier by the fact that the lobby is plush enough for a Las Vegas motel."

Old-line Rebel fans also want to hear no more about the Billy Cannon punt return for LSU on Halloween night 1959; they’d rather talk about Ole Miss gaining revenge on Bayou Bengals in the subsequent Sugar Bowl, by a 21-0 count. And in a different era, the 10-0-1 Rebs would have probably won the 1960 national title had it not been awarded to Minnesota before the bowl games, when the Gophers lost to Washington in the Rose Bowl and the Rebs beat Rice to cap an unbeaten campaign in the Sugar. We’re not also sure Southern Cal’s unbeaten 1962 team would have been able to lay claim to an undisputed national title, not with Vaught’s Rebels, led by QB Glynn Griffing and T Jim Dunaway, unbeaten and untied themselves, and a winner in another Sugar Bowl, this time over Frank Broyles’ Arkansas.

And “Manning” is these parts still means Archie, although son Eli is more than an addendum to the family tree at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. But this is still Archie country, more than 40 years after he played his last game as a Rebel. Archie lore is another favorite topic among long-time Ole Miss fans in The Grove, and where else would the wrist cast of a former QB be on display in a stadium lounge, as is the one worn by Archie during his senior season? Folks in these parts still believe Archie would have won the Heisman in 1970 if not for that wrist injury, and like to point out how the state legislature funded an additional $150,000 to improve the lighting at Jackson’s Memorial Stadium (where the Rebs played several featured games during those days) to enable national TV cameras to better cover Archie in a 1970 game vs. Alabama, which resulted in a 48-23 Ole Miss romp, with Archie playing a part in five of the Rebel TDs. Although a favorite tale of Grove visitors is how none other than Vaught would often refer to Archie as “Charlie,” confusing Manning with another of his star QBs from an earlier era, Charlie Conerly.

We mention all of the above because it has been a while since Ole Miss has canonized one of its gridiron own, and we don’t see many candidates ready to fit the bill this fall, either. Which would include HC Houston Nutt, whose star has dimmed considerably in Oxford since his first team surprised the SEC in 2008 when beating eventual national champ Florida and finishing with a 9-4 record that included a Cotton Bowl romp past Texas Tech. Another 9-4 season and Cotton Bowl win (this one over Oklahoma State) followed in 2009, but hopes were much higher for Nutt’s second version that fell somewhat short of its considerable expectations. Nutt’s critics thus began to organize, and last year’s drop all of the way to an ugly 4-8 mark confirmed the suspicions of many Rebel backers that Nutt’s first two teams had merely reaped what predecessor Ed Orgeron had sewn on the recruiting trail in the middle of the last decade. A revival cross-state at Mississippi State has the Oxford crowd further on edge.

The glide pattern for the Rebs under Nutt appears unmistakably downward, a trend not lost on boosters still dreaming about a return to Vaught’s days, or AD Pete Boone, who has to answer to that crowd. SEC sources indicate that Boone made a not-so-subtle suggestion to Nutt that he make some staff changes after last year’s debacle, and reminded the coach that he probably wouldn’t be asking him the same thing again if the 2011 campaign proceeded in a similar manner. The loyal-to-a-fault Nutt gulped but eventually made a few adjustments within his assistant ranks, including the enlistment of former Vandy QB and UTEP HC David Lee, most recently the QB coach with the Miami Dolphins and familiar to Nutt from days on his Arkansas staff, as the new offensive coordinator. Two other staff changes might or might not be enough to satisfy Boone and the boosters, although, as always, how the team fares on the field will be the eventual measuring stick.

And to that end we have our reservations about Ole Miss 2011. Although it seemed a worthwhile gamble at the time, the Jeremiah Masoli experiment blew up in Nutt’s face last fall, as the late-arriving Oregon transfer was not able to electrify the attack as he did with the high-flying Ducks as their QB in 2008 & ‘09. The assumed heir apparent to 2008-09 QB Jevan Snead, Nathan Stanley, was the odd-man out last year after Masoli’s late arrival, and was so disturbed by developments that he left the program in April, transferring instead to SE Louisiana. Now, Nutt is crossing his fingers and hoping that one of three candidates who fought for the starting job without resolution in spring can step up when needed this fall. At the moment, Nutt would probably opt for mobile West Virginia transfer Barry Brunetti to start in the September 3 opener vs. BYU, although another quick-footed option, juco redshirt Randall Mackey, remains in the mix, as does incoming incoming juco Zack Stoudt, more of a traditional drop-back passer. Lee is trying to implement a more pro-style scheme than predecessor Dave Rader’s mix that included some spread option installed for Masoli’s benefit in 2010; there’s now more pressure on the QBs to read defenses and throw in progression. Some regional observers would not be surprised if Nutt and Lee rotated their signal-callers at the outset until one clearly emerges from the others. Stay tuned.

Other elements of the offense seem more settled, including a capable OL anchored bv all-SEC bookend tackles Bradley Sowell and Bobby Massie. Punishing sr. RB Brandon Bolden (976 YR and 17 TDs LY) contemplated entering the NFL Draft in April before deciding to return for a final fling in Oxford. Most of the pass receiving options are green but talented, and the hype has already begun for frosh WR Nick Brassell, considered one of the top recruits in the South and likely ticketed for immediate duty as long as he satisfies eligibility requirements in summer. He could be joined by another touted frosh, Tobias Singleton, also taking care of eligibility matters in summer school. Either or both could be the deep threat the Rebs need after mostly dinking away last season, when RB Bolden was the leading pass-catcher with only 32 receptions. Redshirt frosh Vince Sanders, the star of the spring game, could also emerge as a downfield receiving option. For drives that bog down in enemy territory, jr. PK Bryson Rose can usually salvage three points after hitting on 16 of 18 FG tries last fall.

The real trick for Nutt, however, will be to coax more out of a suspect stop unit that allowed a whopping 35.2 ppg last fall, the most conceded in school history. An influx of newcomers could help fortify the platoon, although the biggest upgrades need to occur in pass defense where the Rebs ranked a woeful 103th in the nation last year. Veteran defensive mastermind Keith Burns is one of Nutt’s three new assistants and has been tasked with upgrading a shaky DB corps, and to that end is focusing more on press coverage while hoping the secondary generates more big plays after the DBs collected a paltry 6 picks last season. Juco imports S Ivan Nicholas and CB Wesley Pendleton figure to work their way into the rotation immediately, while some observers still believe that holdovers sr. Marcus Temple & soph Charles Sawyer could develop into a shutdown pair of corners. One of the true frosh who could emerge on the stop unit is ballyhooed MLB C.J. Johnson, who looks like a potential destroyer. And he might have to contribute right off the bat as the LB troops were thinned by OLB Clarence Jackson’s springtime dismissal and eventual transfer to FCS Jacksonville State, and a spring ACL suffered by WLB D.J. Shackelford that could sideline him the entire campaign.

The strength of the “D” is likely up front, especially rushing opposing passers after registering 31 sacks LY and with DE Kentrell Lockett granted a medical hardship and 6th year of eligibility after last year’s knee injury. On the other edge, much is being expected of former juco star Wayne Dorsey, who disappointed somewhat in his DE debut last fall. The strength of the DL is its quickness, with all linemen capable of reaching the QB, but new DTs Byron Bennett and Corey Gaines will also have to prove they can be effective run-pluggers in the middle.

Spread-wise, note that Nutt’s early successes in the underdog role with the Rebs abated last season when covering only 2 of 6 as the short; Nutt is only 2-5 as a dog since ‘09 after covering all five when receiving points in ‘08.

Summary...Given the territory, it isn’t hard to believe when any SEC coach is rumored on the hot seat, and with the trajectory of the Ole Miss program apparently aiming downward, we believe that Nutt could be some real trouble if things don't improve in a hurry. No SEC schedule is ever a picnic, and Nutt (who also lost to FCS Jacksonville State, plus Vanderbilt, both at home, a year ago...no wonder there was grumbling in The Grove!) will also be challenged by a tricky non-conference slate that includes the opener vs. dangerous BYU at Vaught-Hemingway and the school’s first-ever trip to California for an October 1 date at Fresno State. If one of the QBs hasn’t emerged as a difference-maker by that point, and if the defense is still springing leaks, it could be panic time in Oxford, with dates vs. most of the SEC heavyweights still on deck (although Alabama, Arkansas, and LSU must all visit Vaught-Hemingway). Anything less than a minor bowl bid would not placate AD Boone or the Ole Miss faithful, and Nutt’s job could end up hinging upon the result of the season-ending Egg Bowl vs. Mississippi State, which will be looking for a third straight win over the Rebs for the first time since World War II (1940-41-42).

Your assignment, Mr. Nutt, is to reach a bowl game and beat Mississippi State...or else.

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