Commentary on upcoming 2004 grid season

Athletically and on paper, the 2004 football team – less than a week away from reporting for August drills – looks like a winner.

They have good experience sprinkled throughout the squad, they have quality depth at most positions and they have dynamic, play-making athletes aplenty.

That all adds up to Rebel fans expecting an excellent product this fall. And expect they should. After all, this is the sixth year of a program that just came off a 10-3 season under the direction of David Cutcliffe, who has never had a losing season as the head coach of Ole Miss.

But in watching the expectations of the fans via this website, I sense some people taking a lot for granted. And in this day of parity among teams – where just about any team can beat just about any other team on any given Saturday – that mindset can be dangerous.

Some of us are assuming things will happen that cannot be predicted.

Take, for instance, the widespread assumption that being as talented athletically across the board as last year's team equals as many wins. It simply does not work that way.

The 2003 Rebels were no better, athletically, than several of the teams they beat – Auburn and Florida come quickly to mind – but they had a special chemistry that put them over the top versus those teams.

We are simply guessing at the chemistry of the 2004 Rebels. We are simply hoping the leadership of the senior class is as strong as the leaders from 2003 were. We believe that a taste of the good life a year ago has the returning players yearning for more, but we won't really know until they face some adversity.

Will they reel off wins in eight of their last nine games if they lose an early one or two like the 2003 team did? Will they be able to play with a high level of confidence when even their own fans write them off as many Rebel fans did after the 2-2 start in 2003?

The 2003 Rebels were pretty fortunate in the injury department a year ago. What happens if the injury bug decides to do a tap dance on this year's squad? What if two of our heralded offensive line starters go down? Will the backups be able to pick up the slack the way Stacy Andrews did against Auburn when Cliff Woodruff could not go last year?

One of the reasons last fall's heroes were hard to handle was experience, especially on the defensive front, a unit that ranked 13th in the nation in run defense when all was said and done. Charlie Anderson and Josh Cooper knew, instinctively and within the system, when to gamble and when not to, when to go inside and when to slant outside. It was all about experience – having been there and done that time and time and time again. Will this year's defensive ends have that kind of feel (read: experience) for the game as it starts flowing? While McKinley Boykin is just as fast and big and strong as Jesse Mitchell, does he have the awareness of what it takes to excel down after down on this level the way the willful Mitchell did? In other words, does he know what it takes to win?

A lot of Rebel fans are quick to call some of the newcomers on the squad "impact" players, particularly JUCO transfer Larry Kendrick. On the hoof, he is as impressive as any DB already in the program. He seems to be a mature young man. But what does he know about the Rebel system – on either side of the ball? Nothing. Zilch. How quickly he can adapt will determine his "impact" on the team. When is the last time a JUCO player impacted a team immediately?

And, of course, the obvious – the quarterback slot. I can't tell you how much faith I have in Micheal Spurlock, but in the same breath I can't tell you how many times the experience of Eli Manning bailed us out of bad plays and bad situations in 2002 and 2003. To make something good out of a bad situation will certainly be part of Micheal's physical arsenal, but until he gains some experience and actually faces some things for the first time, we can't expect him to play at Eli's level from a mental standpoint. Eli will be the first to tell us that he was a much brighter and effective field general after he had a year of starting under his belt than he was as a sophomore. That's natural for anyone, no matter how good they are. That is why Georgia's David Green, with nearly 40 starts under his belt, is one of the most "feared" players in the league this year.

The bottom line to this should in no way put a damper on your enthusiasm for this team. You should expect good results. The coaches expect good results and the players expect good results. Both those ingredients – coupled with fan enthusiasm – can carry a team a long way.

But I think if we are going to be realistic about the 2004 Rebels, we will also have to have a modicum of patience and a bit of tolerance for errors brought on by inexperience. As experienced as the 2003 team was, even they had early growing pains.

While I expect a sterling effort and great success from this year's squad, I'd be remiss if I didn't say I expect some goofs along the way as well. Here's hoping they are at a minimum.

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