Much of the story for Ole Miss football the last decade has been dominated by the coming and going of head coaches.
David Cutcliffe came, got Eli Manning to follow, and won 10 games before his lack of recruiting in terms of non-Manning brothers caught up with him. The program turned to recruiting dynamo Ed Orgeron to fix the situation, and he largely did. Unfortunately, he wasn't so hot at the whole coaching thing that goes along with bringing talent to campus. In many ways Houston Nutt then got to reap the rewards, especially as highly touted transfer Jevan Snead became eligible in Nutt's first year.
But now in 2010, that weaving of story lines ends. Consecutive Cotton Bowl trips combined with consistently good recruiting have removed any uncertainty surrounding the captain's chair in Oxford. On top of that, nearly all of Orgeron's top players have left by now, especially on offense. Snead is gone. Dexter McCluster is gone. So are Shay Hodge, Cordera Eason, Marshay Green, Kendrick Lewis, Patrick Trahan, and Cassius Vaughn. Just about the only guys left that a casual fan might recognize on the Rebels are Brandon Bolden and Jerrell Powe.
Ole Miss is going through so much attrition that I'm not ashamed to say that I needed the magazines from Athlon and Phil Steele more for this team than any other. It's just that kind of year.
There is plenty of good news to be found in those who are still there, though. Defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix turned down overtures from Florida to stay, a huge decision given how much of a revelation his defenses have been compared to Orgeron's. Powe is back to anchor the defensive line, and he's joined by a great cast including Kentrell Lockett, Lawon Scott, and heralded JUCO transfer Wayne Dorsey. It's one heck of a line.
Snead's misguided early exit means that it's Nathan Stanley time under center for the Rebels. He's a big guy who's good for mostly pocket duty, and he solidified himself in the starting role in the spring. Should he falter, redshirt freshman Raymond Cotton, an impressive athlete, will be there to step in. A running back by committee approach could easily unfold with Bolden, Enrique Davis, and Rodney Scott. The offensive line has talent, but absent guys like John Jerry, Reid Neely, and Daverin Geralds, it has all of 22 career starts returning according to Steele.
Where Ole Miss should look to go from here is a matter of your perspective. The Rebels haven't been much of a powerhouse team since Johnny Vaught retired, and they're the only outfit in the SEC West yet to make the conference championship game. From a view of history, becoming a team that can reasonably be expected to go to a bowl year in and year out would be a great thing. Despite all the personnel losses, that certainly appears to be where Ole Miss stands now. That's good.
From a shorter term perspective, this was just about always going to be a year where Nutt gets a mulligan. Sooner or later, a coach who takes over a program will get hit with a thin year because of the transitional issues. Sometimes it's three years in; sometimes it's four. This is that year for Ole Miss, as inexperience reigns everywhere but the front seven on defense. A third straight Cotton Bowl is almost certainly not in the cards.
That is not to say that 2010 is not a pivotal year. Missing a bowl trip would be a disappointment because there's too much talent on the defense especially to revert to the bad old days. However if the Rebels can do better than just sliding into the post season, it would be a big positive statement about the general state of the program. The SEC West is mighty crowded right now, and it would say a lot if Ole Miss is able to hold its own despite that.
The new Rebels showing themselves to be a consistently good team in the division would be quite the introduction indeed.