Like Auburn, the Rebels were an annual opponent of the Vols until the divisional split in 1992. The two teams have met only a handful of times since then, but the Vols have won them all - in fact, the Rebels haven't beaten the Vols since 1983. Tennessee leads the all-time series 43-18-1.
In Houston Nutt's first season, the Rebels lost to Wake Forest 30-28 and to Vanderbilt 23-17 before the calendar hit October, which no doubt led many to believe that the Rebels would miss a bowl game for the fifth straight year. When they shocked the Gators 31-30, most wrote it off as an abnormality, especially when they lost to South Carolina the following week. They played Alabama to the wire but fell again, making them 3-4.
When they won the Houston Nutt Bowl over Arkansas and outslugged Auburn, something sparked: they beat UL-Monroe 59-0, then destroyed LSU 31-13 out of nowhere. After following up with big wins in the Egg and Cotton Bowls, they finished 9-4, winners of six straight, and are the preseason media favorites in the "watch out for" category.
Ole Miss Offense
With relative uncertainty still surrounding how the Gators will replace Percy Harvin's productivity, this is the best offense in the conference. Jevan Snead threw for 2,762 yards and a 26/13 TD/INT ratio last year, throwing only a couple of picks in the Rebels' six game win streak to close the season. Cordera Eason, Brandon Bolden and Enrique Davis all return after combining for over 1,400 rushing yards last year. And they all trailed Dexter McCluster, who averaged six yards per carry and will see more action in the Wild Rebel this season. When he's not running the ball, he'll team with Shay Hodge at wideout, a duo that combined for 1,350 receiving yards last year. These guys are good from every angle.
The one question of offense surrounds how the offensive line will protect Snead and create opportunities for the playmakers. Michael Oher is off making millions, but three starters do return. Exactly how much Oher will be missed will may become the key question for this offense in 2009.
Ole Miss Defense
Another central question to the Rebels' success this season is if this is a good defense, or merely an above average one. Greg Hardy will give them a push off the edge at defensive end, and Ole Miss fans are hopeful he avoids injury this time around. 3/4 of the secondary returns, though the Rebels were last in the SEC in pass defense last season. Jonathan Cornell and Allen Walker are back at linebacker. Here's the best news: the schedule doesn't include the Gators or Georgia, doesn't include a marquee non-conference matchup, and the Rebels' biggest foes in the West - Alabama and LSU - have quarterback uncertainties of their own. So even if the defense is merely above average...that might be enough this year.
Best Case Scenario for the Vols
'09 Ole Miss is '08 Georgia: high preseason expectations based off one upset, one big win and a bowl W against a team with no defense, all overlooking the team's early season struggles. By the time mid-November rolls around, the Rebels have dropped enough games to take the edge off, and the Vols catch them napping. Thanks to Ed Orgeron's presence, this isn't likely to happen...but maybe they psych themselves out for the return of the Wild Boyz. Yes, I'm reaching. If Ole Miss is for real, they'll be the toughest test the Vol defense faces all year. Let's hope they're not.
Worst Case Scenario for the Vols
The Vols get blown out in Orgeron's homecoming, and it becomes the seventh loss of the season that knocks the team out of bowl eligibility. It's another example of the talent gap that exists between Tennessee and the best teams in the conference, and another loss that shows how far the program has to go.
Game Importance Ranking: 8.3
And that's only because of Orgeron. If the Rebels are as good as advertised, this is a game few will give the Vols any prayer in. It's not in Knoxville, it's not against a divisional foe...its overall importance will be determined by how good the Vols are playing by this point. If Tennessee is hovering around three losses, this could be their last chance to get a big win for Lane Kiffin this season. If the Vols are hovering around five or six...well, you don't want to need this one for bowl eligibility. Lots of people, including me, are in the "I'll believe it when I see it" category with Ole Miss this year, the only team from the SEC West to never play in Atlanta...but regardless of the answer to that question, it will take a heroic effort for the Vols to win in Oxford...an odd sentiment, since they've never lost there.
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