Motivation Aplenty

While the significance may be downplayed in the locker room, No. 4 Ole Miss enters Thursday's meeting at South Carolina with much to prove.

It will be the Southeastern Conference opener for the Rebels, who currently sit 2-0 overall and hold their highest ranking since 1970. Dating back to last season, Ole Miss has won eight straight contests for the first time since reeling off 10 consecutive victories in the 1971-72 campaign.

But even more, a national audience full of detractors awaits the outcome. How the Rebels fair against their stiffest competition to date will help determine if this team is indeed a contender or pretender.

"I know there‘s people out there saying, ‘Why is Ole Miss No. 4?' There are people asking if our coaches worked hard enough in the offseason, if we worked hard enough in the offseason," said senior cornerback Marshay Green. "We want to prove the critics wrong. But also, we want to keep a level head and just stay focused on the goal at hand."

So far, Ole Miss has outscored its competition 97-20 in two lopsided wins over Memphis and Southeastern Louisiana.

However, the final tallies in both contests can be a bit misleading, as the team has endured lengthy stretches of spotty play in each. Against the Tigers, it was a stagnant second quarter. In the home opener just five days prior, porous special teams play.

Questions remain for a team filled with expectations, but a showdown in Columbia will go far in providing some answers.

"I've been proud of them," head coach Houston Nutt said of how the team has dealt with high expectations so far.

"The things I can go by are their attitude and their work ethic. Our antennas have been up ever since our guys started to get a little bit of attention from the Cotton Bowl on. It's about work ethic. It's about attitude, how you attack meetings and practice. Our guys have done that the right way, and I've been proud of them."

After an unimpressive 7-3 win against N.C. State in their season opener, the Gamecocks (2-1, 0-1) welcome Ole Miss on an offensive upswing.

USC has scored at least 37 points in their last two contests, while ranking seventh in the conference in total offense (417.0), sixth in passing (230.0) and ninth in rushing (169.7).

Leading the charge has been sophomore quarterback Stephen Garcia, who ranks second in the conference for total offense with 253.0 yards per game.

"I think they've improved offensively," said Nutt. "They've gotten better each week."

"Stephen Garcia has made a big jump since last year," defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix added. "He's getting them in position, making the right reads and throwing the ball on time and accurately. He pulls it down when he needs to and gets positive yards when he runs it. He's a good quarterback. He's got skills. He's elusive, so we'll have to try to keep him in the pocket and get pressure on him without him breaking containment."

With an odd schedule to open the season, the Rebels have had little time to field a regular routine in the season's early-goings.

They opened the year on a Sunday, followed by a bye-week offering 31 cases of flu, then played last Saturday before tripping to Columbia Wednesday for an ESPN Thursday affair.

"We've had a tough start simply because of the routine," Nutt said. "Normally we play on Saturday. We played on Sunday the first game, and then we had 31 guys with flu symptoms and they're out. Usually your most improvement is made from week one to week two, and you don't have them. Then we have everybody three days before the second ballgame. So it's really been two complete, different camps.

"We had a good camp, and then we noticed some guys getting sick the night before the Memphis game," he continued. "We were looking forward to getting back on the field the next day to correct, and you don't have them for a week. That's what's been difficult for us. But I think our guys have handled it well."

And by the end of the day, they'll have hopefully secured their third win of the season.

"The first game was special because it was the first game. The second game was special also because it was the first game at home. But the third game, it's even bigger," junior defensive end Kentrell Lockett said. "It's an SEC game, plus, we owe them. It's special and we have a chance to be 3-0. We're going to come out and really just take it personal."

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