Ole Miss Coach Houston Nutt, a veteran of Cotton Bowls, is more impressed with Cowboy Stadium than even he imagined he'd be.
"You see the stadium on television and know it's special, but until you get here and see it first-hand, you really don't know how massive and impressive it is," said Nutt, addressing the media in a plush interview room underneath the South stands. "We are very excited to be back here.
"We walked in here last night for the opening ceremony and you see how this place is laid out and realize Mr. Jerry Jones built something unique and special. Our players were kind of in awe last night with the video screen and everything else and the first 30 minutes of today's practice. I finally had to say 'let's go, we gotta get something done.' It is really awesome."
Having gotten over the initial shock of Cowboy Stadium's enormity, Nutt realizes there is work to do and a big, big game to play., a game that would erase the bitter taste of the Egg Bowl and even some disappointment with the way the season flowed based on preseason expectations.
"Both teams had ups and downs this year, but we both have an opportunity for some redemption. Our guys have shown me they are going to be up for this game and that is important. They are excited. We were in new territory this year. We had not been in the Top 10 in like 40 years. We got our bubble popped in Columbia, SC, and it was difficult to overcome. We had some tough times when some doubt crept in when we realized we would not go to Atlanta, which was our main goal. We played some great games and some games we'd like to have back, but you can't turn back the clock.
"Even though we are at the same bowl, it has a different feel. A new stadium, a different hotel, different activities - it's bigger and better and has a feel of being at a different bowl. There's a new flavor to this game and it's exciting. The Cotton Bowl - with this new stadium - is pushing to become a BCS bowl and if this doesn't impress the people who decide I don't know what will. It is very critical, to me and this staff and this team, to end the season on a good note in this venue. That is our intention."
While things seem different, there will be some familiarity on the opposing sidelines. Both Nutt and Oklahoma State Coach Mike Gundy come from the same coaching "tree" - that of Jimmy Johnson.
"We are very similar because the influence of Coach Johnson and Coach (Pat) Jones carries over into what we do," Houston stated. "We all believe in playing fast and physical, being able to run the ball, being sound on special teams and tough on defense.
"I watch Oklahoma State on film and see a lot of things we both learned from our mentors and have applied to our teams."
Part of the game, from Ole Miss' perspective, will be the play of Quarterback Jevan Snead, who, like the team, has been up and down. There has also been talk of whether or not Snead will return for his senior season.
"I have not discussed his future with him. I know there is talk about him going pro or staying, but we have not talked about that. What I have talked with him about is this game - staying focused and tuning in," Nutt stated. "When he has been focused and locked in, he has had some very productive games. That's what we are looking for right now.
"We'll talk after the game about his future, but right now we are just concentrating on him being totally into this game. It's one day at a time, right now, for him and all of us. Enjoy it. Focus and take it all in. Jevan puts a lot on himself and I think doubt kind of came into his head earlier in the year. We got him back on track in most of the games, but we lacked consistency throughout, including at quarterback. We are looking to start the new year with some consistency, get a win and carry it over to next year. When Jevan is focused, he's very, very good. That is what we, and he, are striving for. We'll worry about the other issue aftger this game."
As all Rebel fans know, one of the factors for the Rebels somewhat righting the ship and getting to the Cotton Bowl was the emergence of Dexter McCluster at the tailback position.
"When we first got here, we knew he was a good, fast athlete, but we were concerned about his health and his size," said Nutt. "He had a fine year last year and we learned of his huge heart.
"We lost Mike Wallace this year. Our plan was to make him this year's Mike Wallace, which we still think he could do, at wide receiver. Shay Hodge would have gotten 15 more catches, probably, if Dexter had stayed wide, but we reached a point in the season where we saw that wasn't working the way we planned.
"We were rebuilding an offensive line and we needed a spark in the backfield to take some pressure off Jevan and the OL and get our running game going. Dexter gave us that threat. He has such explosiveness - he's close to Barry Sanders with his first step. We finally decided we had to do whatever we had to do to win and take a chance he could take the pounding. He gave us our best chance to win at tailback. After a couple of losses, we knew he had to touch the ball more and the easiest way is to just hand it to him. Our offense took off when we put him at tailback, but even that move did not cure our inconsistency, which popped up again at both Auburn and Mississippi State. Dexter is a great player, but he can't do it by himself."
Oklahoma State will counter Dexter and company with players like CB Parrish Cox.
"He's a difference-maker. We know how good A.J. Green at Georgia is and Parrish did a great job on him early in the season," said Houston. "What jumps out at you is that he takes on the personality of a wideout when the ball is in the air and seems to come up with it a lot.
"Oklahoma State has a lot of other excellent players on defense. Their DL is very active and they play extremely hard, like I would expect from kids coached by Coach Gundy and DC Bill Jones."
Lately, Houston has been surrounded by "big" and "glitz." Not only are his Rebels playing in the confines of the best stadium in the country, he's gotten some residuals from the recent success of the movie "The Blind Side."
"Michael Oher was a tremendous captain for us. He called me yesterday. He was going to eat supper with Mike Wallace and they wished us luck," closed Nutt. "I am very proud of him.
"The movie has also given us a lot of recognition. When we are recruiting, we hear 'that's what you said in the movie.' My eight seconds are tied to Ole Miss. You get a good feeling from Moms and Dads who have seen the movie. It gives us a good image and gives recruits a good feeling. These are exciting times at Ole Miss, for a lot of reasons."
Next up: The Rebels showcasing their talents in Cowboy Stadium.
"It doesn't get much better than this opportunity," Nutt smiled.
Nutt pleased to be back in Dallas
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