Against South Carolina, the Rebels' many flaws were exposed. No longer can the absences of 2008 centerpieces Mike Wallace, Michael Oher and Peria Jerry simply be swept under the rug.
To put it bluntly, a team with undeniable talent has issues.
Priority one goes no further than the offensive line, as the youth and inexperience of sophomore left tackle Bradley Sowell shown brightest Thursday. In fact, going head-to-head with USC career sack leader Eric Norwood for much of the night, Sowell appeared outmanned.
"I thought there were times where the pocket did collapse a little bit on Jevan," Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt said of Norwood, who recorded 10 tackles and two sacks in the win. "Also, he probably anticipated a pocket collapsing, and he didn't throw it away a couple of times like he normally does.
"(Cliff) Matthews and Norwood were the best we've seen so far. That was a really tough matchup for us. It really threw us off-balance. There were times where a back was trying to help (Sowell), and at times Norwood still won that battle. So that was discouraging. You've got to give Norwood a lot of credit. He's a punt rusher and a defensive end and backer. He plays it all, which we knew. He did a great job for them."
Ole Miss went to work Sunday to resolve the issues facing the front with a trip to Vanderbilt on deck Saturday.
No depth chart changes are imminent, but if the Rebels do intend on being players in the SEC West race, Sowell must make dramatic improvement in Nashville.
"That was a tough assignment for Brad Sowell," Nutt said of Sowell's performance against the Gamecocks. "He'll get better on his drops, his sets. He'll learn from this one. It was just a very, very tough night.
"Norwood is a good defensive player," Sowell added. "We had him schemed, but didn't execute well enough. He beat me for a couple of sacks. I'm just going to have to keep working and correct what I did wrong. I thought we did better on him in the second half, but he was the real deal. Jevan was hit too much, something we will have to fix up front."
Paired with porous line play, the alarming inconsistency of junior quarterback Jevan Snead is also of concern three games into the 2009 season.
Completing a mere 7-of-21 passes for 107 yards and one touchdown versus South Carolina, Snead displayed happy feet in the pocket, seeming uneasy with protection spotty.
"Our defense did an excellent job and gave us plenty of opportunities. We just didn't capitalize. I definitely think we can play better," said Snead. "As far as my game play goes, there's a lot I can improve on, and make some of those throws that I missed."
In fairness, Snead has proven to be a slow starter before over his short career in Oxford. After tossing four interceptions in a forgettable loss to Vanderbilt last season, the Stephenville, Texas native closed with 20 touchdowns and only six INTs.
Leading the Rebels to a 9-4 season, Snead finished his sophomore campaign ranked second in the SEC in TD passes (26) and third in passing average (215.5).
But unlike that fateful run of a year ago, this crop of Rebels were forced to replace three starters along the offensive front, which has clearly had an effect on the 6-foot-3, 220 pounder.
"I'm going to tell him there's a whole lot of football left," Nutt said. "We all know we can do better. It's not all him. What's important is we don't worry about anything. Let's correct the mistakes. Let's handle the things we can handle. And let's go get better."
The first step toward improvement begins in the Music City, where a Commodore team who has proven challenging for Ole Miss in recent years awaits.
The Rebels have lost three of the last five meetings with Vanderbilt, with their wins coming by a combined total of 10 points.
"You know how tough Vanderbilt always plays us," said Nutt. "It's going to be a real challenge, and we're looking forward to it. That's the thing about (the USC loss), you can't wait to get back out on the field. You want to get back out on the field. You need that dose of medicine, and that dose of medicine is a victory."
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