Would a team, ranked as the fourth-best in college football, endure their first true test of the season? Had the Rebels handled all the preseason hype? Could they channel the second halves against Memphis and Southeastern Louisiana for a full 60 minutes?
When looking at the schedule for a barometer of where this team might stand early in the season, fans and media immediately turned to a showdown in Columbia. The Rebels, riding a streak of eight-consecutive wins dating back to last season, would have a chance to prove detractors wrong.
They were the team to beat. No longer considered an underdog, Ole Miss would walk into hostile territory and manage its best performance to date. The story was set. Only the script remained.
But after dropping a game more one-sided than the final score versus South Carolina Thursday, the Rebels are back to square one. In fact, now more than ever in the minds of some outside pundits, this team shouldn't even be considered amongst talk of the top-25.
"I don't think so," said head coach Houston Nutt when asked if the lofty national ranking proved too much for the team to handle.
"I go by effort, attitude and how hard they work. All they've done is given it to us. They've worked extremely hard. I'm proud of them. I never sensed we were feeling a lot of pressure. But now, it is what it is. We lost our first conference game. We have to win the next conference game. Period."
Though having outscored its opponents 97-20 in blowout wins over Memphis and SELA, Ole Miss had never shown signs of a team with national championship aspirations.
Concerns along the offensive line, mixed with alarming inconsistency by junior quarterback Jevan Snead, left Nutt and staff with a multitude of unknowns in the Rebels' conference opener.
With porous play by each on Thursday, neither worry was settled. Instead, fears have only been magnified.
"Offensively, we didn't stay on the field enough," Nutt said. "We came back there at the end and fought hard, but we just didn't get the job done. We had some opportunities (offensively). That's what hurts in this one. We had the momentum at the end, but we didn't finish it."
Against South Carolina, Ole Miss surrendered four sacks. The durability of sophomore left tackle Bradley Sowell against USC career sack leader Eric Norwood reared its head early and often.
Norwood pressured Snead almost at will, finishing the game with 10 total tackles and two sacks. Snead, on the other hand, completed only 7-of-21 passes for 107 yards and one touchdown.
"They're definitely the best defense we've faced thus far," Snead said. "They gave us trouble in a couple of areas. As far as my game play goes, there's a lot I can improve on, and make some of those throws that I missed."
It's hard to call this one an upset. When you consider the total dominance by South Carolina through three quarters, the final outcome really wasn't surprising.
Still, the Rebels had a chance to win it at the end.
"After watching the film, it was very disappointing and hard to swallow," said Nutt. "I was really proud of the fight and the effort of our guys for four quarters. The defense was outstanding in the red zone. Our kicking units were much better. Offensively we did some good things, but we stopped ourselves so many times with missed blocks, missed assignments. We've got to do much better keeping the ball and executing."
After three games, we can finally assess where this band of Rebels actually stands.
The preseason expectations for Ole Miss by many may have been unrealistic. For those expecting the team to not suffer a loss, you either held your sights entirely too high, or dipped a bit too far into the kool-aid.
So the false hope for an undefeated season is over. But with nine games remaining, the SEC West and a shot at Atlanta are still on the table. With one loss, this team isn't a disappointment.
However, as we've seen for three games to open 2009, they'll need much improvement over the coming weeks not to be.
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