Stan picks Rebs 2nd in West

There has hardly been a column written as we approach the fall that does not tie the ultimate fate of the 2004 Ole Miss Rebels to the loss of Eli Manning.

There is no question that Eli was a player of exceptional ability. But I don't think for a minute the 2003 Rebels were a one-man team. Nor do I think the 2004 Rebels will be under achievers because he's gone to the New York Giants.

The coach's pre-season All Conference team tells you the men who know the most about talent don't think so either.

Without a doubt LSU is the favorite to win the SEC West, if not the entire package including the national championship. They should be. But while 13 members of the Tiger's team were selected as pre-season stars, the Rebels had 10 selected for that team. Since David Cutcliffe could not vote for any of his own players the respect for the Rebels around the league is obvious. The returnees from the co-champions of the SEC, which the Rebels were, are a gritty, talented bunch and they will be hard to handle.

Cutcliffe says the goal this year is the same as every year, to win the West and go on to Atlanta to play in the overall title game. They may very well make it.

I have yet to talk with any coach or member of the Rebel family who has expressed any doubt about the ability of Michael Spurlock to step in and take over.

Of course he won't be the second coming of Eli. He'll be the first coming of Michael, doing things his way as it should be. Eli was not a scrambler or a running quarterback for that matter. His strength was to think his way through games, to take advantage of the time he was given by his offensive line, to be cool under fire and to distribute the ball to his group of talented receivers.

Spurlock will win games with his legs as well as with his arm. The style of quarterbacking will change but it will still be a winning style. What Michael learned sitting on the bench watching Manning play the position will help him to play it his way, as he should.

Yes, receiver Chris Collins is gone but th talent at receiver is deep. Bill Flowers, Kerry Johnson, Mike Espy all return and there are others in the mix such as Matt Pierce plus redshirt freshmen Carlos Suggs and Frank Clayton.

But of equal importance is the offensive line, certainly one of the best Ole Miss has had in many years. These guys are big, tough and ready. Yes, there is a question of depth but barring injuries the Rebels are as good up front as anyone in the league.

Ole Miss is equally strong at tight end. Experienced Eric Rice is the returning starter and a talented player.

If there is a question mark on the team it is the defensive line. Five of last years starting six, including linebackers, are gone. There's no denying that senior Ken Bournes departure after that unfortunate event in Memphis will hurt, both the young man and the team. We'll need someone to step up. That is a position which will require some finger crossing and hope.

You've got to feel comfortable with Eric Oliver returning at free safety but it is equally comfortable to know Travis Johnson Kelvin Robinson, both starters will also return. We're strong there.

I do admit to some concern about the running back position We don't have a Cadillac Williams such as is found at Auburn. But we do have some depth at the position and players who will give their all and that's a comfort. Vashon Pearson showed flashes of his future ability last year and now in his junior season it is hoped he will take another step forward. Brandon Jacobs will see a lot of action at both tailback and fullback but there is playing time available for a running back who shows improvement.

Most of all, I feel comfortable with our special teams. Games are won and lost by place-kickers and punters and nobody is stronger than Ole Miss at those positions. Senior place-kicker Jonathan Nichols is not just the best in the SEC, he's the best in the country. He's got range and accuracy and he'll win games for the Rebels.

Senior punter Cody Ridgeway was named to the pre-season All Conference second team by the coaches, behind only the kicker from Tennessee. When you've got the best place-kicker in the league and the number two punter you have nothing to worry about as far as the kicking game goes. Then when you add Mike Espy as your punt returner you couldn't ask for more.

So where does my crystal ball tell me the Rebs will finish? Second with a chance to finish first. LSU has to be the favorite with the majority of their starters from last year's national championship team returning. The Rebels are my choice for second in the West with the note that the football sometimes takes strange bounces and it can for the Tigers too. Auburn is my choice for third. They've got defensive problems. I believe Alabama is overrated and the best they can hope for is fourth place. Arkansas will be fifth and Mississippi State last.

My crystal ball had a good year in 2003.

Hopefully, it will have another in 2004.

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