NCAA Football Preview - Ole Miss Rebels
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From The Sports Network By Pat Taggart, College Football Staff Writer 2003 SEASON IN REVIEW: Eli Manning brought plenty of pride back to the Ole Miss football program, and his last year in Oxford was certainly a memorable one. While the team fell short of its goal of winning the SEC title, a double- digit win campaign is hard to frown upon. Things did not look good early on, as the Rebels suffered losses in two of the first four games. The first defeat came against Memphis and the second against Texas Tech, and they surrendered a total of 93 points combined in those games. Rather than give up on the season, Manning rallied the troops for six consecutive victories, including three wins by four or fewer points. Then, on November 22nd, Ole Miss put forth a sensational effort against LSU, but that game against the eventual national champions resulted in a 17-14 defeat. Disappointed, the Rebels clubbed bitter rival Mississippi State by a score of 31-0 the next week to earn a spot in the Cotton Bowl against Oklahoma State. That matchup proved to be one of the most competitive of the bowl season, and Manning closed his career in style with a 31-28 triumph. 2004 ANALYSIS: OFFENSE: With Manning gone, the starting quarterback role is now in the hands of Michael Spurlock. The fourth-year junior has had plenty of time to watch Manning perform, and he inherits a talented offense that put up plenty of points a year ago. Spurlock lacks ideal height at just 5-11, but his arm strength is well above average and he is much more mobile than Manning. In fact, head coach David Cutcliffe has stated that the team may mix in some option plays. There are a few talented receiving options in place, and Bill Flowers tops that list after grabbing a total of 92 balls the last two years. Mike Espy is a burner who still has not reached his full potential. Perhaps even more important to Spurlock's success than the wide receiver play is the performance of his tailbacks, Vashon Pearson and Alan Abrams. Pearson is the most experienced while Abrams is a highly regarded freshman who will challenge for snaps. Jamal Pittman was expected to get several carries but has been suspended for the first half of the season because of some legal trouble. The strength of the offense could be the play of the line, as three talented starting linemen return. DEFENSE: With only four starters back in place, the Ole Miss defense has plenty to prove this year. Daniel Booth is the only man back along the defensive front, and he is an average player at best. Jayme Mitchell and Cory Robinson are going to be asked to provide pressure on the quarterback from the end positions, but it obviously remains to be seen what those first-time starters can do. The Rebels list only two linebackers among the 11 starting defenders, and Ken Bournes and Rob Robertson are a pair of seniors who figured to earn those spots. Unfortunately for the team, Bournes was suspended along with Pittman during the offseason. The most returning experience is in the secondary, as Travis Johnson, Kelvin Robinson and Eric Oliver are all back after starting last season. Oliver is a sensational performer who racked up 129 tackles a year ago, and he is clearly the leader of the defense. SPECIAL TEAMS: Jonathan Nichols won the Lou Groza Award last season, and the senior kicker is back to provide Ole Miss with plenty of security at the position. Nichols nailed 25-of-29 field goals in '03 and showed plenty of leg strength by nailing a 54-yard field goal. Cody Ridgeway is a solid punter, and Espy has the potential to make big plays as a punt returner. OUTLOOK: It's hard to get too excited about this Ole Miss team, as the departure of Manning and seven defensive starters is cause for obvious concern. Spurlock will put up solid numbers thanks to his mobility and maturity, but he simply isn't Eli. As a result, a middle-of-the-pack finish in the SEC West is likely.