So it’s no secret not much was expected of the Rebels. But after beating Florida and LSU last season, earning a berth in the Cotton Bowl, and returning key members of a team that finished 9-4, Nutt understands the outlook has changed in 2009.
“Last year we had an attitude of, ‘We’re fixing to go hunt, we’re going to go compete, try to win this game when nobody gives us a chance,’” Nutt told the media in the Wynfrey Hotel on Thursday morning. “Right now, we’re the hunted.”
Florida, the defending national champion, remains the overwhelming favorite to win the SEC title. But Nutt and the Rebels have been the trendy pick to challenge the Gators.
Ole Miss is regarded as a top 10 team by several preseason prognosticators, has one of the nation’s best quarterbacks in Jevan Snead, and should be the choice for SEC Western Division champs when the preseason media poll is announced today.
If that’s not enough, the Rebels will even be the subject of a reality TV show, “Gridiron U,” during preseason practice.
The notoriety has been gratifying for a program that has never represented the SEC West in the league title game. And, more important, for a team that was a woeful 3-21 in SEC games during a three-year stretch before Nutt arrived last fall.
“It’s a great feeling to finally get some respect for our program and just get our name back out there,” Snead said. “It’s just great for our program. I’m excited to be a part of it.”
But the respect brings questions. Can the Rebels — who aren’t used to the attention — handle the hype? Is Nutt, who has a reputation for excelling as an underdog, succeed as a favorite?
Snead said the Rebels anticipate any problems.
“Our motto this year is, ‘Unsatisfied,’” Snead said. “We had a great year last year, but we’re a little unsatisfied. Our goal this season is to get to Atlanta and play for the championship.”
And Nutt disagreed with the notion that he struggles as a favorite, claiming the one thing that plagued some of his teams at Arkansas was injuries. Arkansas was projected to win the SEC Western Division in 1999, but finished 8-4. There were high hopes in 2007, too, before the Hogs started SEC play 0-3.
“We’re excited to be in this position,” Nutt said. “We knew this would happen. You win six straight (to end 2008), you go to the Cotton Bowl, you beat a good team in Texas Tech, there’s going to be some attention. No you got to embrace it, handle it.”
If nothing else, the Rebels’ could help them get there.
Ole Miss’ nonconference slate includes games against Memphis, Southeastern Louisiana, Alabama-Birmingham and Northern Arizona. The Rebels get their biggest conference games — Alabama, Tennessee and LSU — at home as well.
But it’s not enough for Nutt to proclaim it’s Atlanta or bust for the Rebels this season. He knows expectations are high, but he simply wants his team to work hard and enjoy the ride.
“You just feel like things are getting ready to happen and we’re excited,” Nutt said. “But I wouldn’t say, ‘OK, Atlanta or it’s really a downer.’ I don’t believe that.”