But in 2009, outside reaction to Ole Miss' recently concluded regular season is mixed. The Rebels reached as high as No. 4 in the national rankings, but also suffered unimpressive, if not deflating, defeats at South Carolina, Auburn and in-state rival Mississippi State.
In each game, Ole Miss was favored. As preseason media darlings, the Rebels were picked for greater heights unforeseen in years prior. There were expectations. Atlanta or bust was the mantra.
"We have a lot of things that are very good," said Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt when addressing the state of the program Sunday. "Everyone will look back and see a Cotton Bowl or whatever bowl we go to this year back-to-back and that's very good on the heels of four losing seasons. We're going to build on that. We still have to be much more consistent, and we will be."
All signs are pointing toward a return trip to Dallas for a Cotton Bowl appearance in extravagant Cowboys Stadium. When word is announced, it will be the first time Ole Miss has appeared in back-to-back January bowls in 40 years.
However, before a 41-27 pounding by way of MSU, the Rebels were poised for more. Their sights were set on the Capital One Bowl, and another step up for a program just two years removed from four consecutive losing seasons and 0-8 conference campaign.
"There's nothing you can do about it now," senior running back Dexter McCluster said of the disastrous trip to Starkville. "It's a loss. But you really wanted this game. We wanted to get to a great bowl game, which we still will. We're bowl eligible for the second straight year. We still have something to play for. We want to win this next one and go out with a win."
When there's time to reflect, it's hard to predict how this season will be remembered.
Yes, there were bright spots. Hanging on to clip the Tigers 25-23 will be talked about for years to come amongst Ole Miss faithful. McCluster's earth-shattering day versus the Vols will be replayed in households for generations.
Senior wide receiver Shay Hodge became the first Rebel to top 1,000 yards in a season - a school record 1,023. He also hauled in his eighth touchdown grab of the season against the Bulldogs, the 22nd of his career, which is within two of the all-time Ole Miss record.
"The Egg Bowl hurt really bad, because it's the last one I'll play in," he said. "I'm just thanking God I have another chance to win another game. We have a bowl game to play and something more to play for."
But the disappointments are undeniable.
The alarming inconsistency of junior quarterback Jevan Snead has been discussed ad nauseum, and rightfully so. The Stephenville, Texas native was pegged a potential Heisman sleeper before the season began, only to end the year with 20 touchdowns compared to 17 interceptions.
"We were 8-4. But I'd like to have a couple of games back," Snead said. "There's nothing we can do about it now. We just have to go out and play well in our bowl."
The bubble-bursting loss to the Gamecocks will always be recalled as a season turning point for this team.
In their first true test of the season, the Rebels couldn't withstand a relentless South Carolina defense. In front of a nationally televised audience on a forgettable Thursday night in late September, Ole Miss was exposed to the tune of a 16-10 defeat.
"The season isn't over," said Nutt. "A lot of teams have to put their footballs up, but we don't. That's what's exciting. We get more practices and we get to go to a very good bowl. We're still full speed ahead."
Regardless of the side chosen, it's time to move forward. Ole Miss is again in the position of spending New Year's in enviable, albeit familiar, territory.
There's no season like bowl season; a reality once thought of as unthinkable in the not-so-distant past.
"You have no choice but to move forward," McCluster said. "We still have one more to play. It's all about going out with a win."
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