KENTRELL LOCKETTcould only frown while watching the BCS championship game last January. AsFlorida rolled over Oklahoma, the Ole Miss defensive end thought of his team'svictory over the Gators at the Swamp three months earlier. "It was kind ofdisappointing," Lockett says of seeing Florida win it all. "What canthey do that we couldn't do? Why not us?"
Lockett knew why.The stunning upset of the Gators was sandwiched between home losses toVanderbilt and South Carolina, two schools that would finish 7--6. Championshipteams don't lose such games. If the Rebels hope to live up to the hype producedby the win over Florida and a Cotton Bowl whipping of a Texas Tech team thatentered the game 11--1, they'll have to be more consistent.
Quarterback JevanSnead, wideout Dexter McCluster and coach Houston Nutt's Wild Rebel formationwill get most of the attention, but to win its first SEC title since 1963,Mississippi will need better play from a defense that finished last in theconference against the pass (221.7 yards) in 2008. Week in and week out thatunit has to maintain the degree of intensity it mustered in the wake of anemotional halftime at Alabama last October.
After Ole Missallowed 24 first-half points to the second-ranked Crimson Tide, defensivetackle Peria Jerry and safety Jamarca Sanford lit into their teammates in thelocker room. The Rebels didn't give up another point that day, and though theircomeback fell short (Alabama won 24--20), they held their remaining opponentsto 12.5 points per game as they won their last six.
Jerry and Sanfordhave moved on to the NFL, but the attitude they helped instill in the Ole Missdefense remains. Even senior defensive end Greg Hardy, a ferocious pass rusherlong derided for taking plays off, has come around, says defensive coordinatorTyrone Nix. And there's depth up front in speedy ends Hardy, Lockett and MarcusTillman, plus 300-pound tackles Ted Laurent, Lawon Scott and Jerrell Powe.
"We're reallyunsatisfied after last year," Lockett says. "We have more phenomenalfeats to come."
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A LACK OF CONSISTENT PLAY IS THE ONLY THING HOLDINGTHEM BACK.
COACH: Houston Nutt (2nd year)
2008 RECORD: 9--4 (5--3 in SEC)
FINAL AP RANK: 14
RETURNING STARTERS: 14 Offense 6, Defense 8
6 at Memphis
19 Southeastern Louisiana
24 at South Carolina
3 at Vanderbilt
31 at Auburn
7 Northern Arizona
28 at Mississippi State
Last fall Ole Miss nearly upset Alabama in Tuscaloosa,falling 24--20. To win the SEC West, the Rebels have to beat the Tide. Easiersaid than done. Alabama has won five straight in the series.
Sure, Tennessee has won 12 straight over Ole Miss andhas never lost in Oxford. But in the 61-game history the teams have met inOxford three times, most recently in 2004. (Other sites: Knoxville, 29;Memphis, 23; Jackson six.)
MATTHEW SHARPE/GETTY IMAGES
Hardy has 18½ sacks over two seasons, but the defensive end has to beat the rap that he takes plays off.