Ole Miss opens the 2011-12 season against formidable opponent BYU in front of a nationally-televised audience September 3.
Saturday, September 3, 2011
3:45 p.m. CT
Oxford, Miss. (Vaught-Hemingway Stadium)
For Ole Miss coaches, players and fans alike, kickoff of the 2011-12 football season can't arrive soon enough.
In a lost year, the Rebels finished a disappointing 4-8 last season, including a 1-7 mark in Southeastern Conference games. Among the non-conference losses was a season-defining upset at the hands of Jacksonville State to open September. Ole Miss, for all intents and purposes, was unable to recover.
Head coach Houston Nutt, who led the team to back-to-back Cotton Bowl wins prior to last season, promised changes in his postseason press conference, his rallying cry centered around a renewed sense of work ethic and accountability.
"I'm excited about the guys coming back. I'm excited about our program," Nutt said in November. "We're ready to roll up our sleeves, go to work. And we're excited about the future."
In the months that followed, the team underwent possibly its toughest off-season strength and conditioning program to date. Three new coaches were hired -- offensive coordinator David Lee, wide receivers coach Gunter Brewer and cornerbacks coach Keith Burns. Spring practices in April were far more physically demanding than they had ever been.
And, of course, there was the now-infamous "Circle of Excellence." In brief, players were paired together in a glorified buddy system. If one got into off-the-field trouble, so did the other, both players required to participate in some form of disciplinary action and, in turn, moving further outside of Nutt's circle.
Still, off-season measures only go so far. Come September 3 against BYU, all that matters is wins and losses. Because this season, unlike any other, is easily the most important of Nutt's tenure at Ole Miss. And with a difficult schedule in place for a rebuilding team, getting off to a hot start is imperative.
BYU Offensive Player to Watch
BYU finished 7-6 overall a year ago, an average season by any record-keeping standard. However, the Cougars' overall record doesn't tell the entire story. Rather, BYU hit its stride in accordance with the emergence of freshman quarterback Jake Heaps, who enters his second season as one of the more highly-regarded signal-callers in the country. Prior to November, Heaps was completing barely 50 percent of his passes. He had two touchdowns to seven interceptions. BYU, meanwhile, had lost five of eight games, its season heading nowhere. Then Heaps turned a corner. The light bulb came on, if you will. Heaps averaged nearly 250 yards per game over the season's final five games, including four wins. His touchdowns spiked, Heaps recording 13 touchdowns and only two interceptions. Arguably his most impressive performance came in the New Mexico Bowl against UTEP. Heaps was 25 of 34 for 264 yards and four touchdowns.
2010 Stats: CMP: 219-383 / YDS: 2316 / TD: 15 / INT: 9 / RAT: 116.2
BYU Defensive Player to Watch
BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall fired his defensive coordinator, Jaime Hill, after the Cougars opened their season 1-4. A year later, Mendenhall is again his own defensive coordinator, a role he assumed following the departure of Hill. His defense returns seven starters, but possibly the most significant player defensively is transfer Uona Kaveinga, who sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules. Kaveinga played sparingly in his two seasons at Southern Cal, but was once ranked a four-star prospect and the No. 9 outside linebacker in the country by Scout.com. Kaveinga not only ascended to a starting role at inside linebacker during spring practices for a depleted linebacker corps, but according to Brandon Gurney of TotalBlueSports.com, he was also "an emotional leader on the defense who his teammates rally around."
2008-09 (USC) Stats: TOT: 5 / SOLO: 1 / SACK: 0.0 / FF: 0 / INT: 0
What to Watch For:
BYU is a formidable opponent to open a season with in any year. This season, it's even tougher.
Ole Miss is fresh of its worst season in years. Its offense is breaking in a new quarterback (again) and an inexperienced group of wide receivers. Defensively, the Rebels are without every major contributor at defensive tackle from last season, two starting linebackers (well, three, if you include the injured D.T. Shackelford, who spent most of his time at defensive end last season) and three starters in the secondary.
BYU quarterback Jake Heaps
Fortunately, and thanks to the efforts of Mike Markuson, the offensive line is loaded with depth and experience.
Tackles Bradley Sowell and Bobby Massie are one of the better pairs of bookends in the SEC. Numerous linemen who saw action last season out of sheer necessity -- Patrick Junen, Jared Duke, Evan Swindall, to name a few -- are back and filling out the two-deep depth chart.
And it doesn't hurt to have senior running backs Brandon Bolden and Enrique Davis, either.
On paper, this game seems destined for a high-scoring affair. However, Ole Miss would do better to avoid an OK Corral-like shootout. Heaps, as noted, is quickly establishing himself as a rising star in college football. Ole Miss' secondary, meanwhile, is still trying to recover from an embarrassing season-long performance, where it ranked 103rd in the nation in pass defense. But, hey, the rushing defense wasn't much better, ranking 61st, according to nationwide statistics compiled by the NCAA.
Ole Miss, at least early, will bread its butter on the ground. Bolden and Davis and that offensive line have to be the backbone of this team, especially early. BYU is breaking in as many as two new starters, if not more, at linebacker. Its defensive line was average last season and battled injuries in the spring.
To win, Ole Miss has to keep at its own pace and hope the defensive adjustments made this off-season payoff quickly. Otherwise, well, you know the rest.
At a Glance: Head Coach: Bronco Mendenhall / Record: 7-6 / Offensive Formation: Spread / Defensive Formation: 3-4 / Starters Returning (O/D): 10/5 / Lettermen Returning: 60 / Lettermen Lost: 17
Mitch Harper, CollegeFootballNews.com
When BYU declared Independence in the Summer of 2010, one of the immediate challenges was piecing together its first independent schedule in 2011. BYU's partners at ESPN helped broker a deal for the Cougars to play Ole Miss in Oxford to kickoff the season.
Ole Miss was originally slated to play Boise State in the 2011 opener, but the Broncos jumped divisions to play the Georgia Bulldogs in the made-for-TV Chick-fil-A Kickoff. BYU jumped at the opportunity to face an SEC opponent, the first time the program has had that chance since a visit to Starkville to face Mississippi State in 2001, head coach Gary Crowton's first season. The Cougars won that contest 41-38, before losing their final two games to finish the year 12-2.
|Tackles for Loss