Not since a fabled 10-3 season with Rebel great Eli Manning under center has Ole Miss entered a year with such high expectations.
Sure, the Red and Blue hold three national titles, six SEC championships and one Western Division championship, but wins had been few and far between for the better part of four seasons until a 9-4 campaign in head coach Houston Nutt's Oxford debut.
Now returning one of the conference's best quarterbacks in junior Jevan Snead and 14-of-22 starters from a year ago, Ole Miss enters 2009 with a No. 8 Associated Press ranking and much, much more.
"It's a sense of just getting anxious and impatient," senior free safety Kendrick Lewis said in July. "You want it to come around so bad that you can't wait for the first game. That's the feeling around everybody. The days are getting closer and closer, so we've just got to keep working and keep grinding to get there."
Meeting Memphis in the Liberty Bowl to kickoff this much-anticipated season Sunday, that grind has finally paid off.
With a 41-24 win over Memphis last season, Ole Miss scored its most points against the Tigers since a 61-7 win in 1980. The Rebels lead the all-time series 46-10-2, including an 18-2 record in Oxford, and have won 13 of the last 17 meetings dating back to 1988.
However, Memphis presents a different cast of characters from the one dominated in the Rebels' season opener in 2008.
A plethora of transfers from Division-I programs, including TE DajLeon Farr (Miami), DB DeRon Furr (Auburn), LB Jamon Hughes (Mississippi State), RB Darcel Johnson (Arkansas), LB Derek Odom (LSU) and RB Lance Smith (Wisconsin), make this Tiger squad an unfamiliar opponent.
"Memphis is always a game through the years that's a tough physical game," head coach Houston Nutt said. "They have two exceptional wideouts in Carlos Singleton and Duke Calhoun. Their quarterback is back. Curtis Steele, the running back, has improved.
"Defensively we don't know all the changes and new faces. But going by what we see and hear, they've got guys that can run. We've got to make sure our guys are ready to go and are prepared. The first game is always a little nervous, because you try to cover everything."
Offensively, Memphis returns four of its top offensive playmakers in 2009. An offense that averaged 27.2 yards per game, the Tigers finished the season ranked second in Conference USA in rushing offense with an average of 194.8 yards per game on the ground.
"They're a well-coached football team, a team that can run the football," said defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix. "They averaged close to 200 yards a game a year ago rushing the football and 200-something yards passing. So you'll see a well-balanced team, ranked probably in the top 25 or top 20 in total offense."
As has often been the case over the years, Memphis boasts a receiving core littered with talent. The solid one-two punch of Carlos Singleton and Duke Calhoun is back, as the pair combined for 1,278 yards and eight scores on 92 receptions last season.
With both possessing elite size of at least 6-foot-5 height, it could pose a problem for senior cornerbacks Cassius Vaughn (5-foot-11) and Marshay Green (5-foot-8), according to Nix.
"You can't defend size," Nix said. "You've just got to play your technique. You've got to play the way you're coached. You've got to play with your heart. If you can come up with the ball in your hands or keep the receiver from catching it, then you've done your job."
Defensively, Memphis made great strides last season, after ranking 103rd nationally in rushing defense in 2007. The Tigers jumped to 76th under defensive coordinator Tim Walton, but saw Walton bolt to Detroit as the Lions' secondary coach. Kenny Ingram was promoted in March to take over, after spending the last three years coaching the team's linebackers.
Overall, Memphis improved from 100th in 2007 to 57th in total defense last season, with senior defensive back Alton Starr playing a major part. Starr, a 2008 C-USA Honorable Mention selection, started all 13 games at free safety and finished the year as the team leader in tackles (90).
"Every game takes on its own complexion and it's our job to adjust as we go and modify what we are doing based on the defensive looks we are getting," offensive coordinator Kent Austin said of gameplanning for the Tigers. "Our first priority is to make sure we are executing and making great decisions while playing with a high level of intensity, but that being said, we have to concern ourselves with what they are doing and make sure we aren't running things that don't work against their defensive looks. Initially, though, we will focus on us doing the right things and go from there."
Austin feels the offense is on schedule based on preseason camp results.
"We worked on a lot of things and have a lot on film. Now, we will scale it back and fit it to a gameplan that makes sense against the opponent we are playing," he said. "We have enough in, though, that in the event we need to modify, we have enough in our arsenal that we can do that."
Ole Miss has won 12 of its last 13 season openers, with a 20-13 loss to these same Tigers in 2004 the lone exception. In season openers against Memphis, the team is 31-3-2. The Rebels have opened with Memphis more than any other opponent.
"It's just time to play," Nutt said Wednesday. "We haven't really had any bad practices. We've had 30-31 practices and they are tired of beating on each other. It's time to go."
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