Surprise! Ole Miss is SEC West front-runner

Updated: October 27, 2003, 2:59 AM ET

OXFORD, Miss. -- Eli Manning's senior season is working out just the way he wanted.

While Auburn, LSU and Arkansas have been getting most of the hype during the first two months of the season, Mississippi will start November as the surprising front-runner in the SEC West.

The Rebels took a half-game lead over LSU and Auburn on Saturday night with a 19-7 victory over the 21st-ranked Razorbacks.

Ole Miss (6-2, 4-0) is off to its best conference start in 33 years and the only team undefeated in SEC play. The Rebels moved into The Associated Press poll Sunday for the first time this season at No. 20.

"This is why I came back," Manning said. "To have a shot to win the West."

The Rebels' star quarterback was just a bit player in their latest victory.

Ole Miss' rejuvenated defense stifled the hurting Razorbacks and kicker Jonathan Nichols continued his near-perfect season with four field goals.

Ole Miss held Arkansas (4-3, 1-3) scoreless in the second half. The Razorbacks, who were playing without injured leading rusher Cedric Cobbs, didn't get their initial first down of the second half until there was less than four minutes to go.

A month ago, it seemed unimaginable that Ole Miss could beat a good team with Manning throwing for just 145 yards and one touchdown as he did against Arkansas.

Ole Miss finished September 2-2 with a defense that was laughable. The Rebels ranked last in the nation in pass defense and were allowing 32 points per game.

It's been a different story in October. The Rebels allowed 52 points while going 4-0.

The once beleaguered defenders say there has been no secret formula to the turnaround.

"I think we just stepped up after those two losses," linebacker Justin Wade said. "We knew we really had to come through when it counted. We became more focused. We're playing with more tenacity and confidence than we ever have."

It didn't hurt that they played Arkansas without its top two tailbacks -- Cobbs (hamstring) and De'Arrius Howard (ankle).

The makeshift backfield managed only 82 yards rushing -- 143 yards below its SEC-leading average coming in.

That left Matt Jones to shoulder the offense. It was too much to ask of the elusive quarterback. Jones was 12-for-29 for 140 yards with an interception.

Arkansas is heading in the opposite direction of Ole Miss. The Razorbacks, who rose all the way to No. 7 in the rankings after a 4-0 start, have lost three straight. They dropped out of the rankings on Sunday.

"It is frustrating," Arkansas coach Houston Nutt said. "We have to get back to work. We need to get De'Arrius Howard and Cedric Cobbs back."

Nichols kicked field goals of 20, 24, 42 and 25 yards, the final two in the fourth quarter to seal the victory. He is 22-for-23 this season.

The Rebels conclude a four-game homestand Saturday against South Carolina, looking to go 5-0 in the conference for the first time since 1963. That was also the year the Rebels won an SEC title.

Since the SEC split into two divisions in 1992, Ole Miss is the only Western Division team without a division title.

With games remaining against Auburn and LSU, the Rebels still have a long way to go. But for now, they are the best in the West.

"It feels great," Wade said. "It's a new feeling, one we haven't had for a while here."

This story is from's automated news wire. Wire index