Nutty proposition

Assuming an Ole Miss program that had gone 3-9 overall (0-8 SEC) in 2007, Houston Nutt surpassed expectations by going 9-4 overall (5-3 SEC) in 2008.

He was supposed to take the Rebels to still greater heights in 2009 but fell well short of his preseason top-five ranking by going 9-4 again (4-4 SEC).

Given Nutt's track record for thriving as an underdog and underachieving as a favorite, Ole Miss should be in for a huge year in 2010. The Rebels were projected to finish dead last among the six Western Division teams at the recent SEC Media Days.

Houston Nutt, true to form, couldn't care less.

"I've been here 13 times, and most of the time I've been picked towards the bottom," he said, including 10 trips as head man at Arkansas. "I don't really worry about that. I never have.

"A lot of people say, 'You coach better when you're not under such high expectations.' I've always been under low expectations, so most of the time I don't really worry about that....

"I understand y'all picked us last. Thank you. That's all right. It's good. It really doesn't matter."

Ole Miss is picked last because it lost eight offensive starters from 2009, including heralded quarterback Jevan Snead, electrifying Dexter McCluster and 1,000-yard receiver Shay Hodge. Still, the Rebels have an excellent chance to start 5-0, since their first five games are vs. Jacksonville State, at Tulane, vs. Vanderbilt, vs. Fresno State and vs. Kentucky.

"The schedule is really in our favor early on," Nutt conceded. "We got to take advantage of it."

Snead's decision to bypass his senior season in favor of the NFL Draft may be a blessing in disguise for the Rebels. He threw 20 interceptions last fall, contributing significantly to Ole Miss' No. 11 ranking among the 12 SEC teams in turnover margin (minus-7 ... 24 for, 31 against). That cost the Rebels dearly.

"Absolutely," Nutt said. "I think it always starts with protecting the most important thing that you have, and that's the ball. Win the turnover margin. We had 20 interceptions last year. With that and the fumbles, you're putting your defense in a very difficult situation."

Minus Snead's big-league arm, McCluster's versatility and Hodge's big-play potential, Ole Miss won't be nearly as dynamic on offense in 2010.

"Offensively, we're a little bit different because we lost so much," Nutt conceded. "The offensive line I won't go through; you won't recognize their names."

Ultimately, Ole Miss will need a good year from its new quarterback to surpass its sixth-place projection in the SEC West. Nathan Stanley attempted just 23 passes as Snead's understudy last fall, completing 11 for 163 yards.

"I'm really proud that we have Nathan Stanley," Nutt said. "He had a really good spring, got better. I thought his decision-making process got better ... improved each time he went out on the field."

Stanley had better continue improving. After opening with five winnable games, the Rebels close at Alabama, at Arkansas, vs. Auburn, vs. Louisiana Lafayette, at Tennessee, at LSU and vs. Mississippi State.

If Houston Nutt is going to surpass expectations in 2010, he'd better build some momentum in September because October and November look pretty rugged.

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