The Catalyst: Every year, Phil Steele flips out in his "Baylored" section over the axe that fell on David Cutcliffe in 2004 after his first losing season, only a year removed the Rebels’ best season in more than 30 years. Three years and one canned Cajun later, Phil, David and David’s new employer in Carolina look like the smart ones:
Ole Miss will never again be the national power it was in the fifties and sixties, and in place of that, it’s hard to imagine it being more successful over any period of time than in Cut’s six-year run –– no other coach since the sainted Johnny Vaught averaged seven wins here, or took UM to five straight winning seasons. Was that streak overly dependent on the genetically inevitable glow of Eli Manning? To some extent. But even as the legend of Eli is certain to obliterate the bounds of the reality (he was a very good college quarterback, but rarely great, especially prior to his senior year) as the years go on and the fluky Super Bowl wins amass, his last hurrah was Ole Miss’ seventh winning season in a row and its ninth in eleven years. Billy Brewer, Tommy Tuberville (impressively, in the wake of the recruiting shenanigans that cost Brewer his job, cut available scholarships almost in half in ‘94 and ‘95 and banned TV and bowl games both years) and then Cutcliffe consistently fielded competitive teams –– not contenders, but respectable outfits that could be counted on to hover around .500 in the conference and pay off in a bowl game. I don’t know if the goal in firing Cutcliffe was to take "the next step" or what, but after the disastrous experiment in diminishing returns under Orgeron, .500 in-conference and a steady diet of shady bowl games would get Houston Nutt coach of the year (it worked for Sly Croom! Eventually!)
The New Guy: At least Nutt, unlike Orgeron, is a known commodity in these parts, and –– coming from a program that looks exactly like Ole Miss in terms of resources and recruiting –– probably a more accomplished addition than he generally gets credit for:
"Big Three"=LSU, Auburn, Alabama
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Nutt never took Arkansas over the top, but he almost broke even against the alleged division overlords and had the Hogs in a non-shady New Year’s Day game as often as not. Ole Miss hasn’t been close on either front, and went 3-7 against Nutt’s teams. If you consider Arkansas and Ole Miss basically the same school (again, Rivals’ database shows they’ve recruited almost identically since at least 2002), Nutt is an immediate improvement over Orgeron (that much is obvious) and at least the equal of Tuberville and Cutcliffe based on his record.
At least until they feel the itch for the "next step," anyway. But there is no precedent for a 1-7 disaster on HN’s watch, and ending their relationship with those sorts of seasons is the Rebels’ first priority.
If the first guy’s not open, Jevan, it’s okay. You’ve got six other receivers to check to. We don’t have to gain all 110 yards at once.
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Immediate Impact or Slow Burn?: The one improvement Der Orgeron did make to the program was the overall talent level, thanks to top 30 recruiting classes from 2005-07 and a top 20 class in ‘06. And he won’t even get to reap the benefit of his best sell, Jevan Snead, the hot shot out of Texas –– Rivals’ third-ranked quarterback in the class of 2006 –– who bailed on the ‘Horns when it was clear he’d spend his career behind Colt McCoy. Nutt never had a quarterback with pocket presence at Arkansas: Clint Stoerner was a competent manager, Matt Jones was an athlete but an erratic passer and Mitch Mustain just tried to get the ball to the running backs and get out of the way. So the Nutt offense we’re used to has always been heavily reliant on big backs plunging between the tackles.
That’s not the talent he has here, though, not at the moment. Massive tailback Cordera Eason had a lot of hype coming out of high school a couple years ago, but the leading returning rusher is a wide receiver who had six carries, Dexter McCluster. Snead can allegedly move a little, but the initial book on him is that he’s a strong-armed, pocket guy, moreso than anyone Nutt had at Arkansas or than any of the ineffective flops that manned the position for Orgeron. Last year’s top five receivers return, too, and the new coaching staff favors opening things up a bit: the new offensive coordinator is former Rebel quarterback Kent Austin, who comes from two decades as a player and coach in the always high flying CFL. Presumably he remembers how to draw plays with only eleven men instead of twelve.
First-year starter in a new system, with familiar but rather generic receivers and no proven running threat? Taken with "most generous defense in the conference," which this one was last year almost across the board, five SEC losses seems assured, not including toss-ups with Arkansas and Mississippi State; then there’s Memphis and Wake Forest out of the league. Under the circumstances, any bowl game this year would be an enormous success. In three or four years, they can start worrying about which one.