Rebels look for new start Saturday

You have to go back 21 seasons to 1983 and Billy Brewer's first year as head coach to find an 0-3 Ole Miss football team. To avoid becoming the first team to do so since is only one reason beating Vanderbilt is important Saturday.

It may very well be a season-saving game for Ole Miss. At 0-3 and with games like Tennessee and Auburn here and South Carolina, Arkansas, and LSU on the road, recovery will be difficult in terms of wins and losses if the Rebs stumble against the Commodores.

It will still be tough after that even with a win over Vandy. But I'm willing to take a look down the schedule if we're 1-2. At that point you have to feel pretty good that we'll be 3-2, with Wyoming and Arkansas State to follow. Then we can go from there.

Every year is different. Every team unique. But this does have a little of that 1983 feel to it, for those who remember. Only this time maybe the turn in a positive direction will start at 0-2.

After the 0-3 start 21 seasons ago with losses at Memphis (37-17), at Tulane (27-23), and at Alabama (40-0), the Rebels finally got a home game – in Jackson – and beat Arkansas 13-10.

But consecutive setbacks to Southern Mississippi in Oxford (27-7) and Georgia also in Oxford (36-11) had Brewer and company scrambling for answers. At 1-5, I'm not so sure they weren't simply attempting to avoid complete disaster.

But, as David Cutcliffe and staff appear to be willing to do at this time, changes were made – not because they were pleasant but because they were necessary to save the season.

If you look back at Don Whitten's book "The Dog Comes Home," which was written by the Oxford Eagle sports editor along with Brewer to chronicle his first season at his alma mater, it was about the time of the Georgia game that things began to turn for the Rebels.

Brewer walked a Rebel team through the Grove for the first time in years that day, which reports say hadn't happened since the John Vaught era. A 1-4 Ole Miss squad headed no place fast re-started a tradition we still celebrate two and a half hours before kickoff on homegame Saturdays.

Brewer, always known to look for an edge, was searching for something to get his troops going, and the walk ‘neath the oaks was one he found.

"When we broke through the magnolias to start across the Grove," Brewer said in the book of the unannounced walk, "hundreds of fans spotted us and began to run to the edge of the sidewalk, lined it on both sides and started to clap. It was the greatest feeling I've ever had. My eyes were watering."

In the loss to Georgia later that day, Brewer also inserted backup quarterback Kelly Powell late in place of starter Kent Austin who was injured. Although a lopsided loss, Brewer remarked that he saw some things that made him feel better about his team, that he felt they were finally on the right track.

The next week Ole Miss went on the road and defeated TCU 20-7 in Fort Worth to move to 2-5 on the campaign with Austin still at the controls. Nobody had any idea how special the rest of that year would be.

With Powell replacing Austin for good the following week early in the homecoming game against Vandy, the Rebs rolled off victories against the Commodores in Oxford (21-14), LSU in Jackson (27-24), Tennessee in Knoxville (13-10), and Mississippi State in Jackson (24-23) in the "Immaculate Deflection" game when State's Artie Cosby missed a chip-shot field goal late in the contest as a strong wind blew a perfect kick way left and short of the goalpost.

Five straight wins to end the season and a reward to the Independence Bowl to play Air Force. It was the Rebels' first bowl bid in 12 years after playing in 15 straight postseason games from 1957-71.

For good measure, after all was said and done, the Rebels saw their loss to Tulane changed to a win because the Green Wave played an ineligible player.

The 1983 team, one that started 1-5 and with few fans still believing and supporting, turned it around and became one of the most memorable teams of the past 30 years. The fans fell in love with them. Brewer and company noticed.

"Everybody's been saying, ‘You can have my tickets,' " Brewer said after Ole Miss beat LSU to move to 4-5. "Hey, they want ‘em back now."

Sure, it's a different scenario this year. That staff took over a program that was nearly in shambles following five straight losing seasons – the only time in the history of the program that it had accomplished that inauspicious distinction.

This staff, for the most part, has been building for five years, now into its sixth season. So starts like this aren't expected by a program that rose to 10 wins and a Cotton Bowl victory last season.

The offensive line play hasn't been up to par this year based on their experience and ability. That 1983 offensive line couldn't block a lick early in the season. But as the year moved on, the Rebs ran the ball better and the passing attack improved. The offensive line stepped up and gave Ole Miss a chance.

Defensively that year, the Rebels improved basically each week, and that side of the ball turned out to be a team strength, which hadn't happen in the previous era of Steve Sloan football. The defense was key in close wins over Arkansas, TCU, Vanderbilt, LSU, and Tennessee.

You know the coaches here now are looking for that edge, just like the 1983 staff did, to get this team headed in the right direction. It needs to happen by Saturday and they know it.

No coach or player would ever say publicly that one game is a must win. But this Saturday comes as close as any you'll see, especially for a program that's been building for this long and expects a bowl bid every year.

Vanderbilt won't be easy. We all know that. They believe they can win here. They always give us fits here and in Nashville. They've had two weeks to prepare. It would be a major win for their program.

For the Rebels, it would be win No. 1 of the season, and Southeastern Conference win No. 1 of the season. It would offer renewed hope for a team whose season hangs in the balance right now and with a couple of more winnable games on the horizon after this one.

Getting to 3-2 would be a huge step for this team over the next three Saturdays. A team losing friends fast still needs your help to get to that point.

At 0-2 currently, there's no need to worry about winning seasons and bowl games just yet. What's needed most here is a large and supportive crowd on Saturday, a Rebel win over Vanderbilt, regained confidence among the players, and some handshakes, hugs, and pats on the backs for the victors.

Right now, that's it.

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