Though picked to finish third in the SEC West by media gathered in Birmingham, Ala. for Media Days in July, high expectations for a talented Ole Miss squad still held true in the halls of the Wynfrey Hotel.
To most, an Alabama squad returning one of the better defensive units in college football from a 12-2 team was reason enough to gain the division's top nod. But throw in a loaded stable of running backs headlined by sophomore Mark Ingram and one Julio Jones offensively, and credence for Crimson Tide promise in 2009 seemed even more justified.
Now three months removed from a highly-decorated preseason, Ole Miss has yet to prove its many detractors wrong. In fact, after a 22-3 shelling by way of media darling Alabama Saturday, worries currently reside in what improvement can be made to a team whose offense managed merely 212 total yards in the loss.
Through five games of a shaky season heading south, the Rebels sit 3-2 overall (1-2 SEC) and are tied for fifth in the West with in-state rival Mississippi State and Arkansas.
"We are going to have to look at everything real hard," Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt said Sunday when asked if any major changes were imminent offensively. "We have to pinpoint what our guys do best and what keeps the chains moving without turnovers."
Unsurprisingly, Ole Miss fell out of both the Associated Press and USA Today Coaches polls Sunday after another underwhelming performance on national television.
However, worries of rankings or catching a Crimson Tide team which holds a two-game conference lead in the win column are of little concern these days. For the immediate future, fielding some semblance of consistent offense against UAB on homecoming night is priority one.
"(Alabama) has a great defensive line and were applying pressure all night," said senior wide receiver Dexter McCluster. "But as an offense, that's something we have to correct. We have to figure out what's wrong and get it right."
While manning football's most recognizable position comes with an inordinate amount of pressure, the extraordinary struggles for junior quarterback Jevan Snead are the most alarming of Ole Miss' many offensive woes so far.
Entering the season, the Rebels were forced to replace three starters along the offensive line, including the glaring departure of front stalwart Michael Oher at left tackle.
For much of the year, the line has endured lengthy stretches of poor play, perhaps most magnified in the Rebels' 16-10 loss to South Carolina nearly three weeks ago. The unit surrendered four sacks in the contest, including two by way of USC career sack leader Eric Norwood.
However, against Alabama – ranked first in the conference in sacks by – the front had one of its better days in pass protection. They failed to yield a sack to the Tide, while Snead completed only 11-of-34 passes for 140 yards and four interceptions.
"Jevan (Snead) gets credited with four interceptions, but two of those the receivers have to help them," Nutt said. "The ball pops up out of a receiver's belly into a linebacker's hands and then a ball gets taken from a receiver. On the slant that was picked off, Shay (Hodge) has to run a better route. It's a team thing. We all have to improve and get better and we have to give Alabama credit, they are a good football team."
But the offensive line's performance didn't come without fault, as the unit failed to sustain blocks and open running lanes in a game dominated by a relentless Crimson Tide defensive line.
The Rebels finished with only 72 yards on the ground against the SEC's top-rated run defense, with Snead leading the team on 44 yards gained.
"The disappointing thing is that we got whipped up front a little bit," Said Nutt. "We have to improve on our offensive line and become much more physical."
While Saturday's loss marked only the second in a span of 11 games dating back to last season for Ole Miss, disappointment surrounding a porous offense have left Nutt and staff searching for answers with seven games remaining.
Defensively, the Rebels present one of the better units in all of college football, including an inspired effort against Alabama despite allowing 354 yards of total offense.
But considering the Tide held a near 20-minute disparity in time of possession and the Rebel offense was unable to record more than one first down by halftime, the defense once again proved its capabilities of carrying the team amongst trying circumstances.
So Ole Miss takes to the practice fields this week with improvement offensively desperately needed.
In reality, for a season that appears to be spiraling downward, the team's hopes depend on it.
"We've been in this position before," said Snead. "We've been down and still been able to come back. We just have to have a sense of urgency. Now it's just one week at a time and we'll try to win every game we can."
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