Preseason camp is in the rearview mirror now. The tackling dummies have been put away, at least for a day or so. Practice jerseys will soon be replaced by Ole Miss red and blue.
Finally, after a busy off-season and summer, Ole Miss and BYU are set for kickoff inside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. The game, broadcast nationally on ESPN, is scheduled for Saturday at 3:45 p.m. Ole Miss and BYU are meeting for the first time in history.
For teams across the country (well, minus those who opened the 2011 season Thursday or Friday nights) Saturday represents a new beginning. For Ole Miss, that new beginning can't arrive soon enough.
Ole Miss finished last season 4-8 overall and 1-7 in Southeastern Conference games. Its defense was a disaster, allowing some 35 points per game to its opposition. A season-opening loss to Jacksonville State still stings, as does the second straight loss to in-state rival Mississippi State to end the year.
Ole Miss fans everywhere, be it on message boards or blogs or Twitter, have watched the calendar since November. Because a new season brings promise. A new season brings optimism. A new season offers opportunity.
BYU, meanwhile, is fresh off a 7-6 season, including a win in the New Mexico Bowl. Cougar quarterback Jake Heaps is billed as a sleeper Heisman Trophy hopeful, and the Cougars are out to prove they belong in the conversation for a bid to a BCS bowl game.
What will happen Saturday? The Rebels were picked to finish last in the SEC Western Division. No surprise, really, considering the wealth of newcomers littered throughout the starting lineup.
Can Ole Miss rebound? Is at least a six-win season actually attainable? Will Barry Brunetti end Ole Miss' glorified game of musical chairs at quarterback? Will the offensive line live up to expectations? Will the defense be improved?
We'll soon find out. The gates of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium are locked for just one more day. The Grove has yet to be filled with tents and the unrelenting aroma of adult beverages. The Walk of Champions sits silent until tomorrow afternoon.
But football is back. For better or worse, it's back.
Ole Miss Player to Watch
Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt named Barry Brunetti his starting quarterback a week ago Tuesday. Junior Randall Mackey, who would have likely started against BYU, was given a one-game suspension following a bar fight. Brunetti has been consistent both on and off the field, and was touted by Nutt throughout the summer as the leader in the clubhouse to take first snaps under center come the team's season opener. All eyes will be on Brunetti Saturday afternoon. His performance is arguably the biggest storyline of them all, simply because Ole Miss has had just one quarterback who started at least two seasons since Eli Manning manned the position under David Cutcliffe. The benefit of starting experience at quarterback can't be overstated. Should Brunetti play well, the sophomore transfer from West Virginia could be a catalyst for Ole Miss not just in 2011, but for the next three seasons.
WVU 2010 Stats: CMP: 4-9 / YDS: 6 / TD: 0 / INT: 0 / CAR: 1 / YDS: 4
BYU Player to Watch
Earlier in the week, Brunetti acknowledged his friendship with BYU quarterback Jake Heaps. The two have remained close and have communicated regularly via phone calls and texts since their days as highly-recruited prospects two years ago. The friendship was built during recruiting camps, most notably the Elite 11 camp, in which both players participated. Though admittedly biased, Brunetti called Heaps the best quarterback in the country. He was backed up by Ole Miss defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix a few days later, who said Heaps is the best quarterback Ole Miss has faced in his years in Oxford. Lofty praise, to say the least. But when looking at the stats, one can understand the arguments of Brunetti and Nix. Heaps started 10 games last season for the Cougars, passing for 2,316 yards and 15 touchdowns in 383 passing attempts. He threw just nine interceptions, and was the New Mexico Bowl Offensive MVP. He's the headliner, the player ESPN analysts will discuss ad nauseum Saturday until the final seconds tick away.
2010 Stats: CMP: 219-383 / YDS: 2316 / TD: 15 / INT: 9 / RAT: 116.2
1: Will the offensive line live up to expectations?
Ole Miss has many questionable areas entering Saturday. Nutt and staff have shaken up a much-maligned defense, moving players around in an effort to field the best 11 against a veteran BYU offense. Offensively, the Rebels are awfully young, especially at wide receiver. True freshman Donte Moncrief is in line to start his first career game, and fellow freshmen wideouts Nick Brassell and Tobias Singleton and possibly even Collins Moore are poised to play.
Sowell (left), Massie (right)
However, up front, Ole Miss is as strong as it has been in years. Good thing, too, considering the strength of the team lies in its offensive backfield with running backs Brandon Bolden, Jeff Scott and Enrique Davis.
The offensive line is led by tackles Bradley Sowell and Bobby Massie, two legitimate NFL prospects. The interior of guards Patrick Junen -- who played in 10 games and started five last season -- and newcomer Matt Hall and center A.J. Hawkins is solid, with Hall the only player of the three without a career start on his resume.
Depth-wise, Alex Washington, Evan Swindall, Jared Duke and Emmanuel McCray have all played, with three of the four holding starting experience. Freshman Aaron Morris impressed in fall practices, the swing guard/tackle even holding down a starting job for a few.
If Ole Miss is to beat BYU, it will have to rely on its running game. The Cougars return a wealth of veterans defensively, a group that allowed just 3.9 yards per carry a year ago and 138.6 rushing yards per game. BYU boasts eight upperclassmen as defensive starters, including two of its three defensive linemen.
2: Will the secondary show improvement?
Ole Miss allowed 35.2 points per game last season. The Rebel secondary was a big reason why.
The secondary was shredded in 2010, surrendering 246.3 passing yards per game while totaling just six interceptions. Teams threw the ball at will, opponents finishing the year with 24 passing touchdowns and nearly a first down per pass at 8.4 yards.
Nutt and Nix have completely overhauled the unit, with cornerback Charles Sawyer moving to safety and junior college transfer Wesley Pendleton moving to the first team at cornerback opposite Marcus Temple. Safety, in this writer's opinion, fits Sawyer better. He is one of the team's better athletes, and the freedom of the position should allow Sawyer, a ball-hawk by nature, the ability to do what he does best: attack the ball.
Frank Crawford and Damien Jackson are 1a and 1b at free safety, while true freshman Senquez Golson has emerged as the third cornerback in a matter of weeks.
Saturday should be a good test for the secondary. Heaps, as was noted above, is one of the better, if not the best, quarterbacks Ole Miss will face this season. And the secondary's ability or inability to slow him down is critical if the Rebels hold any chance of pulling off an upset at home.
But a product of good pass coverage is a capable pass rush, which Ole Miss sorely lacked a year ago. The return of senior Kentrell Lockett at defensive end should help, and if senior Wayne Dorsey can become the player Ole Miss expected him to be as a junior, the defensive deficiencies can be turned around relatively quickly.
3: Will the passing game be effective?
Ole Miss intends to use both Brunetti and second-team quarterback Zack Stoudt against BYU. Stoudt, a traditional drop-back passer, received his fair share of the first-team reps over the last two weeks, though when he will appear in the game is anyone's guess.
Typically a two-quarterback system, even for one game, is an iffy proposition. Against Jacksonville State, Nutt used both Jeremiah Masoli and Nathan Stanley. Stanley started, but Masoli finished the game, a double-overtime loss. He kept the job for the remainder of the season.
Ole Miss would be better served if one of Brunetti or Stoudt took advantage of their time on the field and claimed the job. The Rebels have weapons at wide receiver, even if the receivers are mostly young outside of veteran Ja-Mes Logan, the No. 1 receiver. Veteran Melvin Harris was in street clothes as early as Thursday. He has been battling a lower back strain, and despite Nutt's optimism that Harris will play, his status remains doubtful.
The engine of the offense is its running game. If the Rebels can get it going on the ground and keep churning out yards at a consistent rate, it would allow Brunetti, whose accuracy is average at best on deep throws, to settle in with the intermediate passes he is better suited for.
To beat BYU, Ole Miss needs to be boring offensively. Few penalties. Long drives. A run-first offense that opens up the pass.
The Rebels averaged over 30 points per game last season. However, those drives were often short. For a rebuilding team, and especially a rebuilding offense, boring is the best bet. Boring means Ole Miss is playing to its strengths. Boring means Brunetti and/or Stoudt is finding success in the air.
But success in the air only happens through success on the ground.
BYU, At a Glance: Head Coach: Bronco Mendenhall / 2010 Record: 7-6 / Offensive Formation: Spread / Defensive Formation: 3-4 / Starters Returning (O/D): 10/5 / Lettermen Returning: 60 / Lettermen Lost: 17
This Week in Quotes:
Defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix, on BYU quarterback Jake Heaps:
"Really talented kid that's probably underrated as a runner, but has outstanding mobility and has an outstanding arm," Nix said of Heaps. "I've seen him throw it from one hash to the opposite sideline two or three times like it was nothing. Supposedly he's one of the best quarterbacks in the country. I think he'll be the best quarterback that we face since I've been here at Ole Miss."
Sophomore running back Jeff Scott, on the importance of Saturday's game:
"It's a real important game. It's very important, and everybody's excited. Everybody's been working hard all spring, all summer. We're just ready to go in there and play. I think it's a confidence game. The coaches have prepared us very well. The team is pumped, and we're ready to go in there and play."
Offensive coordinator David Lee, on quarterback Barry Brunetti:
"To be the Ole Miss quarterback, that's a real honor. It's an honor to be the University of Mississippi quarterback.
"To be the quarterback at Ole Miss behind the tradition that's been here, there's a lot of responsibility. There's a lot of pressure. You don't quite sleep as good as you used to. I saw it in him. He's tired right now a little bit, ‘cause of all the demands on him."
Lee, on the offensive philosophy against BYU:
"I may be wrong, but we're going to cut it loose. We're cutting it loose. We're not going to play scared. We're playing a team that can score. Doesn't mean they will score. I hope we shut ‘em out. But we're not going to play conservative. Not going to do it."
Freshman wide receiver Donte Moncrief, on keeping his nerves in check in his Ole Miss debut:
"Basically I just keep it to myself, keep it under my skin and just come out and play. When I get out on the field, that's when I release all of it and just let it out. I make the big play, I just stay to myself. I don't want to get a flag, get my team in trouble. But it's pretty hard, ‘cause this is like my dream since I was small. Now that I got, it's very shocking and very exciting to know that I'm about to do this."
Ole Miss tight end Jamal Mosley may or may not start against BYU. Really, it doesn't matter. He's going to play and play a lot. I spoke with the junior college transfer earlier this week, and Mosley -- who played last season at Northwest Mississippi Community College after a season at Oklahoma State -- broke down the season opener, giving some insight into the offense's game plan and what to watch for when the teams finally face off Saturday afternoon.