When Lance Laury, Marcus Lawrence, and Ricardo Hurley, stare across the Mississippi line, they will face not only quarterback Eli Manning, but an SEC Tradition--a Manning at the helm of an undefeated Ole Miss Rebel football team. Not since 1970, when Archie Manning led the Rebel offense, has Mississippi begun its SEC schedule 4-0. But not even Archie himself was able to lead Mississippi to a 5-0 SEC start, a feat Mississippi can accomplish by beating the Gamecocks on Saturday.
Some folks around South Carolina may not appreciate just how big it is in Mississippi to have a Manning leading the Mississippi offense. Get a clue people, it is big. Really big. Let's review a little Mississippi history.
Back in the late sixties, this country was going through some pretty big changes. Martin Luther King was leading a civil rights movement that was forcing dramatic changes--sometimes unwelcome changes--including repeal of laws mandating separate-but-equal, segregationist policies. Not everyone was happy about swallowing the changes. Some folks got downright nasty about them. Now, I'm not saying it was fair, the way the media treated the South. In fact, it was unfair since just as much racism could be found in northern states (have you ever been to Boston?). But however you slice it, fair or unfair, the focus of federal authority back then was directed at the Deep South.
During this time, Mississippi was slow to adapt, and she took some abuse from the national media. She did not always look pretty when scenes from Mississippi were broadcast on the 6:00, television news. If you were from Mississippi, it sometimes felt that the entire world was against you.
It was 1969; Archie Manning's second season as the quarterback of the Ole Miss Rebels. Folks in Mississippi knew Archie before everyone else, but his talent didn't stay hidden in Mississippi for very long. Serious national exposure soon came for Archie in a game against Alabama, the first college football game broadcast nationally on television. Ole Miss lost 33 to 32, but Manning's play was incredible and inspirational. He helped Mississippi set several SEC records in the game, ammassing over 700 offensive yards. And that was just the most famous of his exploits. Every week he thrilled the folks from Mississippi.
Ole Miss never won a national championship, or even an SEC title, with Archie Manning at quarterback, but the wins and losses were not what made Archie Manning a sports hero in Mississippi. It was the context of the times, and his heart and love for football. Archie gave Mississippians something to celebrate. He was a source of State pride during a difficult period. Because of what he did, Mississippi fans will never forget Archie Manning.
So, when Laury, Lawrence and Hurley look across the line into his son's eyes, they will see not just a flesh and blood Manning, but the ghost of Archie. That's the way many folks in the stands this Saturday will see Eli. Many Ole Miss fans are in some weird way still reliving the days of Archie, and his son Eli is making it quite a vicarious ride.
Not that Eli Manning is not a great quarterback in his own right. He is 6-5 and 218 pounds, a fifth year senior, and probably the leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy and the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award (given to the best college quarterback).
Eli statistics are impressive. He currently ranks 8th All-Time in the SEC in total yardage, 9th in touchdown passes, and 8th in pass completions. He currently leads the SEC in passing yards, passing touchdowns, completions, pass efficiency, and total yards per game.
Mississippi fans recognize the star they have in Eli Manning. The Mississippi Athletic Department has even erected a web site dedicated to Eli. The web site has a collection of nice quotes from opposing coaches. For example, Mike Shula, of Alabama, said, "He's the best we've seen." Vanderbilt Head Coach Bobby Johnson called Manning, "a great player."
It strikes me that you never see these kind of quotes from SEC coaches about the Gamecock players. Just two years ago, SEC fans from across the conference were laughing at Phil Petty. You hear them snickering now about Dondrail Pinkins.
Every year, at SEC Media Days, the Gamecocks are lucky if SEC writers condescend to name one Gamecock to the Second Team All Conference team. When was a Gamecock ever named on the First Team All Conference unit? In fact, it seems like the SEC created a second team unit just so they can throw the Gamecocks a bone now and then by naming a guy to the second team squad.
So what's the big deal? This is what it is. If Eli can direct Mississippi to victory against the Gamecocks, it will constitute Mississippi's best conference start since 1963, the year after Ole Miss won the '62 national championship. Most folks think that Ole Miss will have an easy time of it. The Gamecocks don't have a glamorous quarterback, and they are a fourteen point underdog.
What's the big deal? This is what it is. It was not too many years ago that several sports writers across the SEC asked whether South Carolina belonged in the SEC.
Well now, the time of testing has arrived. Defeating a Manning-led Mississippi team on the road in Oxford, will prove to the rest of the SEC that the Gamecocks belong, and not only that, the Gamecocks are a team of reckoning that can look into the teeth of an SEC tradition and beat it like a drum. Get your lunch pails, Gamecocks, and go to work.