It didn't matter that he had already broken 24 school passing
records, or that 17 starters were returning from a 7-6 team. By
the start of Eli Manning's senior season at Ole Miss, most Rebels
fans had given up hope that their highest-profile player in
decades would lead the school back to the top of the SEC.
Although Manning had thrown for 6,349 yards and 52 touchdowns
over the previous two seasons, Ole Miss had gone 14-10. The
verdict on the second Manning era seemed inevitable: Eli, the
third son of former Rebels hero Archie, was a fine player on a
This season, however, Ole Miss is rewriting the final chapter.
With a 43-40 win over South Carolina last Saturday, the No. 20
Rebels are 7-2, and 5-0 in the SEC for the first time since 1963.
The defense, which folded like a card table in the heart of its
conference schedule last year, held Florida and Arkansas to a
total of three touchdowns. The running game, which averaged an
SEC-low 94.3 yards a game in 2002, is averaging 168.1 this
season. "It goes back to [last year's win over] Nebraska in the
Independence Bowl, which reinforced the players' belief that we
have the strength to match up with better teams," says Rebels
coach David Cutcliffe. "It isn't just about Eli."
But Ole Miss's success this season still has a lot to do with
Eli. His stats had dipped slightly as a junior, and that
influenced his decision to return to school for his senior year.
Archie had learned from NFL sources that Eli could have gone as
late as the third round if he'd decided to enter last spring's
quarterback-rich draft. But even so, coming back to Ole Miss
wasn't an easy decision. Says Eli, "I thought, If I'm going to do
this, I'm going to need to be a better leader."
True to his word, the quarterback has become the Rebels' biggest
rouser. Players who dog it during practice or take plays off
during games hear it from their quarterback, even though that
role doesn't come naturally to Eli. "He's never been a real
verbal guy--that was more of Peyton's thing," says Archie.
In turn, his teammates have worked hard to improve after a pair
of September losses, to Memphis and Texas Tech. When Manning
struggled against Arkansas on Oct. 25, the leaders of the defense
told him to protect the ball and they would take care of the
rest. They did, and Ole Miss won, 19-7. And while the defense
yielded 40 points to South Carolina, senior running back Tremaine
Turner ran for 117 yards and two touchdowns while Manning threw
for three more scores. Free from the burden of trying to carry
the team, Manning leads the SEC in passing efficiency, having
thrown for 2,663 yards and 20 touchdowns with just eight
While fans are talking about Manning's Heisman chances or where
he'll go in the draft--he's projected as a first-round
pick--Manning is more interested in leading Ole Miss to the SEC
title. It won't be easy, as the Rebels go on the road to play
Auburn this week and then host LSU.
For his part Eli says the NFL can wait. "With the way things are
going for us," he says, "I'm more excited for the next game."
COLOR PHOTO: GARY BOGDON Manning showed his poise in a win over South Carolina, throwingfor 391 yards and three TDs.