Times are slower at Ole Miss. Recruiting is off and on, most news coming after camps and 7-on-7s in June. The football team is mired in those always riveting (cue the sarcasm) off-season workouts. All is well, all the time. Every player, so they say, is in the best shape of his life.
Blah, blah, blah.
Fans and sports writers alike are left to their collective imaginations, including yours truly. Predictions are made. Best and worst case scenarios are bandied about. You know, how things might be a few months from now, when the college football season is in full swing.
September isn't that far away, really.
So as I sit in my recliner, pecking away feverishly at my computer keys, my mind begins to wander a bit. I was in the press box for all of Ole Miss' four wins and eight losses last season. Actually, I stood on the home sideline of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium when Jacksonville State scored its go-ahead two-point conversion for a shocking season-opening win.
(An aside: What I remember most about that day was the look on now-sophomore running back Jeff Scott's face. I was walking past the Ole Miss bench, on my way to the tunnel that leads to the indoor practice facility. Scott was unbuckling the snaps on his shoulder pads, his elbows high above his head as if he were pulling his pants over his shoulders. Boy was near tears.
I like to think what went through his head that very moment was something to the effect of, ‘I left the warm, crisp weather of Florida for THIS?!?' Depressing doesn't begin to describe the mood of that sideline.)
Ole Miss never recovered from the loss. Never. The season was over barely before it began.
The Rebels could have easily lost at Tulane a week later. If you think about it, the Green Wave was just that much more incompetent. On and on last season went, Ole Miss rarely, if ever, showing signs of life.
Such a loss brings me to the point of this incessant rambling.
When Ole Miss was recording losing season after losing season under Ed Orgeron, a fatal flaw was exposed. Players had no confidence. Zero. Nada. They were beaten, battered. Over time, they even grew resigned to the losses, entering the next game with a defeatist mindset, not expecting to win, only hoping to.
The records that followed indicated as much. The Rebels had no more than four wins overall in any of Orgeron's three seasons. They were winless in the conference in his final, glorious year. Wins seemed next to impossible.
(Another aside: I worked for the sports information department in those years. After every game, my job was to stand in the locker room with a roster. Players with a check beside their name were those requested by the media for postgame interviews. I had to make sure they went. I have to say, that was easily the worst part of the job. The room was always so eerily quiet; the only words breaking the monotony were those of the unprintable variety. Trust me; I was the last person any of those players wanted to see. More than once I thought Jamarca Sanford, who was a regular, was going to slap me stupid. Football was no longer fun. At all. Any fun any of those players could have possibly had with the game of football had been stripped away. They had absolutely no idea how to win, and they knew it.)
Orgeron, of course, was justifiably fired. Ole Miss had to learn how to win again.
Houston Nutt was hired to bring back that winning mentality, an aura of confidence sorely lacking for three painful years for Ole Miss fans. And he did in Gainesville in his first season, Kentrell Lockett's now-infamous blocked extra point and Marcus Temple's fourth-down stop of Tim Tebow the proof.
A downtrodden team, lost in the wilderness under a train wreck of a head coach, had found its way. From there, Ole Miss won back-to-back Cotton Bowls and finished with nine wins twice. Spirits were high. A winning attitude long gone was back.
Everything that could have possibly gone wrong, did. A defense fairly strong for two seasons fell apart. The offense was better by statistical standards, but a gimmicky operation, Nutt showcasing his few playmakers in Jeremiah Masoli, Brandon Bolden and Scott.
Mainly, Ole Miss forgot how to win, what it felt like. Players, coaches and fans hoped for them, shades of the Orgeron tenure. Those young players being relied upon to contribute immediately, like Scott, experienced losing too soon. The damage was irreparable.
One thing is abundantly clear when looking towards 2011-12: Ole Miss is back to where it was before Nutt arrived, which is a scary position for a team sure to be so young once more. Ole Miss will rely heavily upon freshmen. Again. It has to.
The Rebels need their blocked-field-goal moment, and they'll need it early. They need their confidence back, to finally put to bed the nightmares of Jacksonville State. BYU carries the most weight of any game in Houston Nutt's tenure at Ole Miss. It's the most important. There, I said it.
Because a win could mean so much for a young team. The game could very well make or break the season. Don't believe me?
Jacksonville State, folks. Jacksonville State.