2006 Season Preview (Game Five): Ole Miss

Visiting South Carolina fans have set me straight and the Georgia Sports Blog has told everyone that, when I preview an upcoming Bulldog opponent, I don't just get in 'em, I get all up in 'em, so the stakes have been raised for this, the fifth of my game-by-game previews of the Red and Black's 2006 slate.

For those interested in perusing them, the previous entries covering Western Kentucky, South Carolina, U.A.B., and Colorado are available. Now, to the matter at hand. . . .

Am I the only one getting a freaky-deaky Robert-Blake-in-a-David-Lynch-movie vibe off of Ed Orgeron?

The Game

Georgia v. Mississippi
Vaught-Hemingway Stadium
Saturday, September 30

The Opponent

Although this series is of relatively recent vintage, the Rebels are a familiar foe for the 'Dawgs. Georgia and Ole Miss squared off just four times in the first 33 years of Southeastern Conference competition and the Bulldogs' first meeting with the squad from Oxford occurred after the Red and Black's initial outings against every other current S.E.C. team except Arkansas.

Despite that late start, the two teams met every year from 1966 to 2002, when the Rebs rotated off of the Georgia slate. The 'Dawgs will be traveling to Oxford for the 14th time since 1975 and the Classic City Canines hold an 8-5 edge on Mississippi's home field.

The Bulldogs' overall series lead stands at 28-12-1 all-time, with six straight contests from 1994 to 1999 being settled by margins of eight or fewer points. The Red and Black have scored more than 30 points against Ole Miss in 11 of the last 22 games between these combatants, including each of the last three.

A Brief History of the University of Mississippi

The university at Oxford was established in the late 11th century . . .

No, wait, that's not right. (Photograph from TravelBlog.)

Let's try that again. The college at Oxford was founded in 1838 . . .

Wrong again! (Photograph from Oxford College of Emory University.)

Here we go: Ole Miss opened its doors in 1848 as the first public university in the Magnolia State. Among its early students were to be found Charles Bon and Henry Sutpen, who enrolled at Oxford in the late 1850s before both young men joined a Confederate regiment made up of university students.

I am contractually obligated to accompany any reference to Oxford, Miss., with a mention of William Faulkner.

With a current enrollment of nearly 16,500, the University of Mississippi is the smallest public institution in the Southeastern Conference. Two-thirds of the undergraduate students are Mississippi natives.

A Brief History of Rebel Football

The Rebels' gridiron heritage dates to 1893 and Ole Miss got off to a strong start, winning 13 of the first 16 games the school's football team ever played.

The squad's glory days, however, came during the coaching tenure of Johnny Vaught, who passed away earlier this year. During Coach Vaught's tenure from 1947 to 1970 (with a final "farewell tour" season in 1973), Mississippi made it into postseason play 18 times, attending two Cotton, two Gator, and eight Sugar Bowls.

Aside from Archie and Eli Manning, the most famous quarterback ever to suit up for the Rebels was Brick Pollitt, whose professional football career was cut short by injuries and alcoholism.

Since Coach Vaught's final departure from the Ole Miss sideline, the Rebels have struggled to win consistently. Mississippi is the only Western Division team never to have appeared in the S.E.C. championship game and the Rebs have posted just one 10-win season since 1971.

Ole Miss plays its home games in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium at Hollingsworth Field. The facility seats 60,580 and the original grandstand dates back to 1915. The Rebels' stadium is the only on-campus venue in the Southeastern Conference still equipped with artificial turf rather than natural grass. In the nomenclature of the arena, the names of Coach Vaught and Dr. Jerry Hollingsworth were added alongside that of Judge William Hemingway in 1982 and 1998, respectively.

Not that Hemingway!

Because the Confederate battle flag is once again the subject of controversy in intercollegiate athletics, I suppose it should be mentioned that Ole Miss, whose fans once displayed the St. Andrew's Cross prominently on game day, has gotten away from the use of that emblem, despite the fact that the racial connotations often associated with that symbol by the news media did not appear to have much bearing on Rebel fans' show of school pride.

At the start of the 2006 football season, Chucky Mullins will become the second Ole Miss football player to have his number retired. Mullins, the namesake of the Chucky Mullins Courage Award, was paralyzed in the Rebels' 1989 game against Vanderbilt and his strength of character during his rehabilitation served as an inspiration to many.

Finally, Georgia and Ole Miss share a common coach in Harry Mehre, who stalked the sidelines in the Classic City from 1928 to 1937 before accepting the head coaching position at Ole Miss in 1938. No Bulldog head football coach since Harry Mehre has left Athens to accept a coaching position elsewhere.

Returning Starters

Four offensive starters return, with the only good news for the Rebels being that three of them are linemen.

Five starters are back on D, including two of the three linebackers and three of the four defensive backs. The entire defensive line must be replaced, however.

Coaching

Ed Orgeron was a surprise hire for the Rebs, as it was expected that the school would go with someone who had ties to the S.E.C. . . . or, failing that, with someone who wasn't a character from "The Lord of the Rings."

The Orgeron, shown here at his previous coaching stop.

When Larry Coker cleaned house at Miami, some of the Hurricanes' rejects moved from one U.M. to another, as Dan Werner and Art Kehoe wound up on the Mississippi staff as offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, respectively. The wide receivers---assuming there are any in Oxford---are coached by Matt Lubick, the son of Colorado State's Sonny Lubick.

Offense

Where should I begin?

Last year's Rebels scored only 15 offensive touchdowns and ranked 115th in Division I-A in scoring offense (13.4 points per game). Ole Miss also ranked 111th in total offense (281.3 yards per game) and 116th in rushing offense (73.2 yards per game).

Coach Orgeron's staff was shaken up after just one year on the job, as Mississippi's offensive coordinator, offensive line coach, and tight ends coach all have departed.

The starting quarterback just qualified academically. Returning signal-caller Robert Lane is now playing tight end, due partly to the fact that the Rebels' top four receivers from 2005 are no longer on campus. Carlos Suggs, the leading returning receiver, caught one pass last season.

If Jack Dundee had any collegiate eligibility remaining, he could be the Rebels' most sure-handed pass-catcher.

Offensive linemen are being shifted around, as center Darryl Harris and guard Michael Oher are now tackles.

Star running back Mico McSwain suffered an ankle injury late last football season and sustained a shoulder injury halfway through spring practice. McSwain may be needed at wide receiver, leaving room in the backfield for the improbably named BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who transferred from Indiana.

I honestly think the part about their new starting tailback being a transfer from Indiana may be the most embarrassing aspect of the whole thing.

There are, however, some bright spots. Overall, Mississippi's squad is bigger, faster, and more athletic than it was last season. The Rebs should have some depth at tailback and the incoming freshman receivers add talent, if not experience. An effective offensive attack may still be a year away, but Ole Miss is in the process of righting the ship.

Defense

Five starters from the Rebels' front seven must be replaced this season, which is not good news for a rush defense that was comparable to Georgia's last season. In 2005, the Mississippi D surrendered 3.7 yards per carry (virtually identical to the Bulldogs' 3.8), allowed 15 rushing touchdowns (slightly fewer than the Red and Black's 17), and gave up 153.3 yards per game on the ground (a little more than the Classic City Canines' 143.8).

The good news for Ole Miss is twofold. First of all, linebacker Patrick Willis, the recipient of numerous preseason accolades, returned for his senior year following an all-conference junior season.

Secondly, all but one of the Rebels' starting defensive backs remain on campus, which should benefit a fairly solid secondary that ranked fourth in the league against the pass in 2005, when Mississippi permitted 179.4 passing yards per contest. The real question is whether Ole Miss will have enough quality depth on the defensive line to improve the team's ability to stop the run.

I want at least two Mississippi defensive linemen to be blinded temporarily by the glare of the sunlight glinting off of the back of Thomas Brown's silver britches as he hits the hole and leaves them lying prone on the turf or drags them with him to the end zone.

Special Teams

The Rebels were erratic in the kicking game in 2005, when three different placekickers combined to miss as many field goals as they made. (Mississippi had four unsuccessful three-point attempts against Kentucky alone, adding new meaning to the term "Ole Miss.")

There will be opportunities for true freshmen to make an impact on special teams in 2006 and, thanks to Coach Orgeron's recruiting efforts, some first-year Rebels may be ready to contribute right away. Placekicker Joshua Shene and a trio of return men (Marshay Green, Markeith Summers, and Allen Walker) all are expected to compete for playing time.

Dawg Food

When a college football team is known as the Rebels and the squad hails from a campus located in the most Southern place on earth, rebelliousness and regionalism must play a part in the choice of the pregame fare with which the Bulldog faithful will feast on the flesh of the enemy.

For that reason, I have selected country-fried steak as the meal to be eaten before the Ole Miss game.

The Southernness of the dish is undeniable and, given what fried food and white gravy will do to your arteries and your digestive tract, eating such fare is an act of rebellion against your cardiovascular well-being and your gastrointestinal peace. Plus, I think a country-fried steak would fit in really well with the ambience of the Grove.

The mashed potatoes can stay, but those beans are going to have to make way for some black-eyed peas and cornbread. (Photograph from Publix. Yes, I feel ashamed about that fact, as well.)

What Worries Me Most

It's a road game against an S.E.C. team that has changed in many important ways, most of them for the better, since last season . . . and certainly since the Red and Black last faced the Rebs.

With a new yet experienced quarterback and a new yet experienced offensive coordinator, Ole Miss will bear little resemblance to its 2005 incarnation, so fear of the unknown has to be the primary concern for Bulldog Nation as we look ahead to Georgia's first visit to Oxford since 2001.

Also, my comfort level would be heightened slightly were the game to be postponed for 24 hours, until October 1. Although the 'Dawgs are 6-1 against the Rebs in November and 20-8-1 against Ole Miss in October, the Red and Black are 2-3 against Mississippi in September . . . and Georgia has never won in Oxford during the first calendar month of the fall campaign.

What Will Happen on Saturday

The deeper we get into the season, the more speculative any attempt at prognostication becomes. My hope is that four games will give the Rebels enough time to put everything on film but not enough time to get up to speed offensively.

Both teams are in transition on offense, although I expect the 'Dawgs to be farther along one-third of the way through the schedule than Ole Miss will be, due to the lateness of Schaeffer's arrival on campus and the players' adjustment to Coach Werner's system.

The schedule sets up somewhat better for Georgia, as well. There are no easy Saturdays for the Rebels, whose September slate consists of outings against Memphis, Missouri, Kentucky, and Wake Forest on consecutive weekends. While all of those games are winnable, none of them are safe bets to be victories and each of them ought to be challenging.

While I expect both teams to limit their opponents' ability to generate big numbers offensively, the Red and Black would seem to be better equipped to move the ball with a balanced attack unless Mississippi's young talent develops more quickly than anticipated.

Add to that the fact that the Bulldogs' placekicking is apt to be significantly more reliable and you have the formula for a result reminiscent of the Georgia-Mississippi battles of the late '90s, with the 'Dawgs gutting out a win by a final margin along the lines of 21-14, 24-17, or 20-17.

 

Will Brent Schaeffer get past the experience of wearing an orange jersey before Matthew Stafford gets past the experience of wearing a green jersey? (Photograph of Brent Schaeffer from McDuffie Mirror and photograph of Matthew Stafford from Savannah Morning News.)

The intriguing wrinkle to all of this, of course, is the question of which highly touted newcomer will live up to expectations more rapidly and completely, Brent Schaeffer or Matthew Stafford. Given the circumstances awaiting each of them, the smart money would seem to be on Stafford.

Coming soon: Tennessee.

Go 'Dawgs!

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