Thirteen years ago, Houston Nutt, then in his first season as head coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks, announced his arrival to SEC football with authority by way of a dominating 42-6 win over Alabama in Fayetteville, easily one of the worst defeats suffered by the Tide in the post-Whitworth era. Momentum in hand, Arkansas raced off to an 8-0 start before only being stopped by the Hand of God in Knoxville, and by that time Nutt had already solidified his status in Fayetteville and in the SEC.
Fast forward thirteen years and Nutt looks to be playing out the string. Having been forced out of Fayetteville four years ago, he now looks to be on his way out in Oxford too. After making a splash in his first two seasons at Ole Miss, the Rebels have since fallen apart and look to be at the very bottom of the SEC. Recruiting has lagged behind other SEC programs, player development has been non-existent, and the coaching has looked outright incompetent in the past eighteen months. To that end, attracting quality assistants has been a problem. Ole Miss has long since been considered a means to an end, not a final destination, and that program characterization has made it difficult to lure the coaching prowess needed to Oxford, hence why the Nutt has made recent hires of people like Dave Rader. Put together the level of on-field play has been as expected.
This Ole Miss team came into the 2011 season with countless doubters, and in the opening six weeks of the season have done nothing to quiet them. They lost a heartbreaker to BYU in the opener, were annihilated by Vanderbilt in one of the ugliest games in recent Rebel history, and were taken down by Mark Richt and his Georgia Bulldogs. The two wins on the season have come over Division 1-AA Southern Illinois and Fresno State, the latter coming two weeks ago and admittedly showing at least some small signs of life, though clearly the Fresno program is a shell of what it was during Pat Hill's glory years. On the whole, Ole Miss sits at 2-3 with games remaining against Alabama, Auburn, Arkansas, LSU, and Mississippi State. Even becoming bowl eligible at this point looks to be a stretch.
Accordingly, the backlash from the Ole Miss fan base has been very strong, and it seems unlikely that anything other than upsets against either Alabama or LSU (and perhaps even both) could save Nutt at this point.
As they attempt to upset Alabama, Ole Miss will take the field Saturday night with the elusive Randall Mackey under center. Mackey missed the season opener due to suspension and rode the proverbial pine the next few weeks, but struggles from Barry Brunetti and Zack Stoudt forced him into the lineup and he now looks to be their best option. Mackey is very small and undersized, but he does bring some mobility to the quarterback position, even if he cannot throw the football.
Around Mackey, Ole Miss fields a solid wide receiver in true freshman Donte Moncrief and a pair of solid tackles in Bradley Sowell and Bobby Massie.. The rest of the Ole Miss offense, however, is largely a trainwreck. Scatback Jeff Scott will be forced to handle much of the load in the running game alongside recruiting bust Enrique Davis, who is banged up to boot. The performance from the interior offensive line has been shaky, and aside from the occasional play made by true freshman Nick Brassell there have been no consistent standouts at either wide receiver or tight end. All in all it comes as no surprise that the Rebels rank near the bottom nationally in every major defensive category.
The defense may be slightly better, but not by much. Wayne Dorsey and Kentrell Lockett anchor the defensive line, though play from the tackles has been troublesome, and the defensive backfield has been relatively solid with senior Marcus Temple and Wesley Pendleton. A dearth of quality players at linebacker, however, has been a major issue and accordingly Nutt is forced to rely heavily on the 4-2-5 defense simply because of personnel constraints. Not surprisingly those struggles at linebacker and along the defensive interior have meant stopping the run has been a major problem, and 'Bama will look to take full advantage of that tomorrow night.
Alabama, of course, has largely been the polar opposite of Ole Miss in every way possible. Many came into the season with national championship expectations, and with a 6-0 start that included wins over Penn State, Arkansas, and Florida, 'Bama has done nothing to disappoint so far. A.J. McCarron has transitioned nicely into the starting job, the offensive line has significantly improved over a year go, the defensive line has been a pleasant surprise, and the defensive back seven has lived up to expectations. 'Bama may not win a national championship this season, but it's clear the Tide will be in contention late and winning 10+ games looks to be formality at this point.
Giving Alabama an additional edge here is mid-week personnel developments for both teams. It was announced yesterday that four Ole Miss players have been suspended this week, three of which were seniors, and all four will miss the Alabama game. Meanwhile, Alabama expects the return tomorrow of Eddie Lacy, C.J. Mosley, and Chris Jordan, all three recovering from various injuries that have held them out in recent weeks. As if this game didn't look to be lopsided enough, that only gives 'Bama more of a decided edge.
Clearly, Alabama is the far superior team here and should win with ease. A loss to this Ole Miss team would be the biggest upset Alabama has suffered since Curley Hallman in 1993. Hallman, however, should serve as a strong reminder this weekend. His tenure was dead-to-rights in Baton Rouge when his Bayou Bengals traveled to Tuscaloosa that year, and he used that lone win to buy himself another season. Houston Nutt will probably have to employ the same strategy if he is to return next season at Ole Miss, and he knows an upset of either Alabama or LSU will likely be required. Nutt has always been at his best when he is backed into a corner, and with an off week to prepare expect the unexpected tomorrow night.
Upsets do happen, and admittedly in SEC play some of the seemingly easiest games can quickly turn into nailbiters (see Tennessee, 2009). 'Bama will be looking to avoid such a fate tomorrow night, hoping in general to bring about the same end result as a week ago against Vanderbilt, where the Tide won with relative ease and didn't suffer any major injuries. Either way, expect Nutt to fight hard with everything he has tomorrow night in a last-ditch effort to save his own job, and accordingly the Tide must remain focused on the task at hand.
Hope for the best.