COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Ole Miss isn't a great football team. Ole Miss isn't even a very good football team. So what is Ole Miss? I'll tell you. Ole Miss is an example of the dangers of groupthink and greatness-by-association. Ole Miss football represents many of the evils that plague society.
|Jevan Snead and Houston Nutt's Rebels fail to live up to the preseason hype. (US Presswire)|
But Ole Miss is -- or was -- the worst No. 4-ranked football team in modern history. Can we at least agree on that?
Good. Now let's get to that other stuff. The groupthink and the greatness-by-association.
See, it wasn't just Ole Miss that was exposed Thursday night in a 16-10 loss to South Carolina. Nope. It was also the pollsters and the experts and the NFL scouts. It was the media. It was anyone and everyone who had voted for Ole Miss in the top five or had said Ole Miss junior quarterback Jevan Snead was a Heisman candidate or a first-round pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. It was a lot of people who should know better, and as a public service, I'm about to name some of them. That could be embarrassing to a few of these people and publications, but it will serve a purpose. It will teach a lesson or two.
One of those lessons is this: Never, ever take the Ole Miss football program seriously. Not this seriously, anyway. No. 4? Ole Miss? Look -- in a pretty good year, Ole Miss will be the No. 4 team in the SEC West. In a very good year, Ole Miss will be the No. 4 team in the entire conference. But No. 4 in the country? Ole Miss? Come on. Archie Manning isn't walking through that door again. John Fourcade, maybe. But not Archie.
Another lesson for those who aided and abetted the elevation of Ole Miss -- a more serious lesson going forward -- is this: Don't anoint a team or a player as "special" just because someone else anointed that team or player first.
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Dodds and Ends
Someone anointed Ole Miss as a special team this summer. I'd love to know who it was, because that person started the most baffling butterfly effect I've ever seen. You know the butterfly effect: If a butterfly flaps its wings in Beijing, a tidal wave hits California.
The butterfly effect regarding this Ole Miss team coached by Houston Nutt -- let's call it the Nutterfly Effect -- goes like this: If a pollster flaps his gums in June, an Ole Miss tidal wave hits in September.
And this was a tidal wave. The Rebels entered Thursday night with their highest national ranking in 45 years. Since integration this has been a mediocre program, and Thursday night it was trying to start the season a modest 3-0 for the first time since 1989 -- think about that -- but some pollster somewhere decided this summer that Ole Miss should be ranked in the top 10.
Soon, everyone was saying it. The Sporting News ranked the Rebels fifth in the preseason. Sports Illustrated had them sixth. The AP had them eighth. Lindy's magazine said ninth.
And then, after Ole Miss beat the hell out of two really, really bad teams -- Memphis and
Northeast Southeast Louisiana -- the Rebels moved to fourth in the AP poll, fifth in the coaches poll.
Why did everyone think so? Because everyone thought so. Groupthink at its finest.
South Carolina didn't fall for it. South Carolina, which in its history had played 32 times against teams ranked in the top five and had a 1-31 record to show for it, beat the Rebels up. The Gamecocks controlled the line of scrimmage and the time of possession. The Gamecocks also controlled Ole Miss' quarterback, the aforementioned Jevan Snead, who was anointed as "quite possibly the first quarterback taken in a nearby draft" by ESPN.com's Joe Schad and as the No. 2 pocket quarterback in the country by ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit. I'm going to do both of those gentlemen the courtesy of assuming they'd never actually seen Snead play before making those proclamations, that they were going off the hyperbole of someone else, perhaps ESPN's Mel Kiper, who had said Snead "could have a pro career similar to that of former Rebel Eli Manning."
Nonsense. All of it.
South Carolina wasn't fooled. South Carolina, which had allowed Georgia's nondescript Joe Cox to go 17 for 24 for 201 yards and two touchdowns earlier this season, manhandled Snead into a 7-for-21, 107-yard outing. If there was a Heisman candidate on the field, he played for South Carolina and his name was Eric Norwood, a defensive end who had 10 tackles and two sacks to become the Gamecocks' career leader in that category. And he wasn't even the most effective defensive end on his team Thursday night. Cliff Matthews also had two sacks, added a third tackle-for-loss, and stripped Snead of the ball in the third quarter. Matthews then recovered the fumble.
Snead is a nice college player, but he has benefited from the same SEC phenomenon that had somehow elevated Ole Miss into the national elite. Had this same Ole Miss team with that same resume been in another league -- say, the ACC, although that's impossible given how Ole Miss' roster was built at Hargrave Military Academy -- the Rebels would have been lucky this preseason to be ranked in the top 20. Seriously. They won nine games last season, true, but they lost an All-American lineman on each side of the ball. Then they opened this season and beat Memphis. Then they beat
Southeastern Southeast Louisiana. And that's good enough for the No. 4 ranking in the country? Only if you bow to the SEC, whose hype machine would have you believe that a certain league quarterback walks on water.
Ridiculous. If pollsters were paying attention to this game -- and they had no excuse not to, given its exclusive timing -- Ole Miss should fall toward the bottom of the Top 25, if not out of it completely. Ole Miss tackle Bradley Sowell went so far as to say of the Rebels' No. 4 ranking, "I'm glad it's gone ... I'm glad it's over with so everyone can just stop talking about it and play ball."
Nutt wasn't as introspective. He saw an Ole Miss team that should have won Thursday, graciously noting that "there were just so many plays where we stopped ourselves tonight."
Not everyone believed the hype. The man with the absolute most to gain from beating a great team Thursday night, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, wasn't acting as if he'd just knocked off a great team. Spurrier compared this win to South Carolina's "upset" of No. 8 Kentucky in 2007. That Kentucky team lost five of its last eight games and ended the season unranked.
"The win over Kentucky two years ago was very similar," Spurrier said. "Ole Miss is a good team, but it's early in the year. We don't know where they're going to end up."
We don't know where Spurrier will end up, either. He's older but as impatient, as miserable with offensive imperfection, as ever. He's 64 and in his fifth season at South Carolina and still looking for a team good enough to finish a season in the Top 25. At 31-23 in four-plus years he has won more than any coach has won in such a span at South Carolina, but he hasn't been able to turn quarterback schlock into gold like he did at Duke and Florida, and it's starting to look like he never will. Before this season began, I thought this would be his last year at South Carolina, that he would get sick of the frustrations and retire to a golf course. But then comes a night like Thursday, a night Stephen Garcia called "one of the biggest wins in forever."
One of the biggest wins in forever? Against Ole Miss? Not really, but who knows how the positive vibes from Thursday will impact the head ball coach. Maybe this game will be enough to make Spurrier stick around.
Definitely it should be enough to make Ole Miss go away.