Notebook: November Déjà Vu

Just three weeks ago, Ole Miss limped out of Jordan-Hare Stadium after suffering perhaps its worst loss of the season, a 33-20 disappointment at the hands of Auburn. The Rebels were 5-3 overall and 2-3 in the SEC at the time and thoughts of a repeat bowl trip in 2009 were fading.

A New Year's Day trip to Florida or Texas didn't appear in the realm of possibility. Ole Miss would have to take at least three of its last four games against stiff competition to attain the coveted eight-win plateau.

But now winners in five of their last six games, including a 25-23 nail-biter Saturday against LSU, the Rebels have positioned themselves for back-to-back nine-win seasons. They've also moved ahead of the pack for a possible trip to Orlando, Fla. for the Capital One Bowl on January 1.

"Head-to-head is one of the factors we look at," Tom Wert, a selection committee member for Florida Citrus Sports, said following the game. "LSU and Ole Miss, if they win out, will have the same record. But this is a big deal in terms of deciding. We would love to have Ole Miss come to Orlando. We think they would be a great matchup with the Big Ten."

The Capital One Bowl has the first choice of SEC teams after the BCS bowls are filled and must choose a team with either the best record available or only one game worse. In other words, if the best team available is 10-2, then the Capital One, by contract, may only choose that team or a team with a 9-3 record.

Even if both teams win out, Ole Miss (8-3, 4-3) now owns the head-to-head tiebreaker over LSU (8-3, 4-3), meaning the Rebels stand as the frontrunner for a trip to Mickey Mouse territory come the New Year.

"This is a great win for Ole Miss. We would love to have them, because they've never been to our bowl before," said Wert. "If Rebel fans could come to Orlando and do the same kind of thing they do in the Grove, we'd absolutely love it."

But while media and fans alike can discuss the Rebels' bowl destination, junior quarterback Jevan Snead understands there is still work to be done. Ole Miss still has one regular season game remaining, an in-state battle with Mississippi State Saturday at 11:21 a.m. on CBS.

"We're still taking it one game at a time," he said. "At the same time, we know we've put ourselves in position to where if we do win this next game, then we can go to a big-time bowl. We knew what we were playing for coming into this game and we couldn't be happier with the outcome."

He Can Pass, Too:

These days, 100-yard rushing performances are nothing new for senior running back Dexter McCluster.

No, there were no rushing touchdowns for McCluster on the day against the SEC's fourth-best run defense in LSU. But the Largo, Fla. native did total 148 yards on 24 carries. It was the second straight week for McCluster to eclipse 100 yards on the ground, and the fourth consecutive time against conference foes.

"It felt like they were keying on me," McCluster said of the effort. "They were coming real fast and flying to the ball. The yards I got tonight were tough yards. We just had to pound it and that opened things up for other guys. When you've got a steady balance, you can get receivers open."

Adding to the legend that has become Run DMC, McCluster also notched his first career completion and touchdown early in the fourth quarter.

From the snap, the Rebels showed counter-run action. With the LSU defense playing to McCluster, the shifty 5-foot-8, 170-pound back then pulled up for a 27-yard toss to a wide open Shay Hodge.

With the clock showing 13:33 in the final frame, the Rebels led 22-17.

"He did a beautiful job of selling it, and as soon as I saw the safety and the corner suck up, Shay sold it too," Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt said of the play. "He broke down like he was going to crack the safety like he'd been doing the previous play. When you're running counters, running counters, running counters, in their mind its stop No. 22 and here they come. It was going to be a three-yard gain but he pulled up."

"We knew they were going to bite hard on the run," added McCluster. "Shay (Hodge) stepped in behind the coverage and I knew he was going to catch it. He was so wide open, I could have probably drop-punted it to him."

Entering the game, McCluster was averaging 197.0 rushing yards and 263.3 all-purpose yards with five touchdowns over his last three SEC games. When you add his totals from Saturday, McCluster has now recorded 903 rushing yards on the year, and needs only 97 more to become only the fourth runner in school history to rush for 1,000 yards in a season.

"Dexter is a special player," offensive coordinator Kent Austin said. "He has such a huge heart and wants to win so badly. And he's so unselfish in going about it. Another incredible performance."

An Efficient Snead:

Though his junior season hasn't quite gone according to plan, Ole Miss quarterback Jevan Snead has certainly shifted course in consecutive crucial wins for the Rebels.

Dexter McCluster gets the press, and rightfully so. But Snead has turned the ball over only once in victories over Tennessee and LSU. He played arguably his best game of the season Saturday, where he completed 14-of-21 passes for 206 yards and no touchdowns or interceptions.

Even better, with the Rebels clinging to a 22-17 lead with 12:08 remaining in regulation, Snead guided a 15-play march of 60 yards. In the drive, he completed two 14-yard passes to Shay Hodge on third down, before placekicker Joshua Shene added another field goal for an eight-point lead.

"Awesome," said Nutt of the Snead-led drive that drained 8:26 off the clock. "To handle the clock the way you want to, manage the game, make some key throws, and he didn't throw an interception. That's the bottom line. Don't turn it over. When you don't turn it over, you have a chance. We've become a real good offense when we don't turn it over."

Snead found five different receivers in the win, including seven passes to Hodge who had a game-high 117 yards. In his last two games, Snead is completing almost 66 percent of his passes and has totaled 339 yards through the air.

"Considering the situation and the magnitude of this game, he played his best game," said Austin of Snead. "He really managed the game well and was very accurate. He made some great throws and great decisions, and in the second half, he was really good with some big third-down throws we had to have. For whatever reason, it seems he comes alive in October and November."

More November Magic:

It's a cliché often repeated by Nutt, but once the clock struck zero on a thrilling win over LSU, we were all reminded once again.

"They remember in November."

In two seasons under Nutt, Ole Miss is 7-0 in the final month of the regular season, including three wins so far in 2009. Last season, there were four wins to no losses for the Rebels. A memorable stretch culminated in a berth in the 73rd Cotton Bowl Classic, the first bowl for Ole Miss since a 10-3 season in 2003.

Sound familiar?

"The biggest thing you can attribute this to is senior leadership, not letting go of the rope, and of our guys continuing to believe and keep working when the outside world says you can't," Nutt said. "If (LSU) is No. 8 in the country, we ought to be No. 9 or 10. I love the journey and they've hung in there, especially in November."

When the Rebels fell 16-10 at the hands of South Carolina in September, collective spirits were low. Add difficult losses to Alabama and Auburn to the list, and the idea of a winning run to end the year didn't appear likely. From an outside perspective, this was a team whose season successes were to be measured by Ole Miss' first trip to Atlanta.

But perceived disappointment can be a funny thing. With the Rebels now hitting their stride in the waning stages of 2009, they're not only proving to be among the better teams in the SEC, but are accomplishing what few expected they could in memorable fashion a month ago.

"What's difficult was that bubble bursting in Columbia," Nutt said. "(After the early losses) we knew this was going to be a big-time Dr. Phil job, because everybody was talking about Atlanta. When that doesn't happen, what they hear going to class or what they hear on the street is like it's a wasted year. A lot of people didn't think we were going to win another conference game. It's easy to let go of the rope and give up.

"That's what I love about our team. We didn't. We've got a huge game next week. Huge. It's important we finish the right way. Our guys have character this year and I'm proud of them."


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