Snead, Ole Miss fell shy of expectations

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Jevan Snead's second consecutive trip to the Cotton Bowl Classic isn't as satisfying as his first, but you wouldn't have known it by the way he ogled the overwhelming vastness of Cowboys Stadium, the new home of the Cotton Bowl.

"Just to come to this amazing, I don't even know what to call it," the Mississippi quarterback beamed as he craned his neck toward the massive video board overhead. "I can't get over it. It's amazing, and I'm very honored to play here."

Maybe so, but an appearance in the inaugural bowl game at Jerry Jones' $1.2 billion ballyard was not what Snead and the Rebels had in mind in September when they kicked off the most hyped season most Rebels supporters can recall.

Defeating Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl a year ago capped Mississippi's season with a six-game winning streak. A string of praise and accolades and magazine covers ensued, and expectations that the 2009 team could finally take Ole Miss to Atlanta for the program's first appearance in the SEC championship game.

The Rebels opened the season ranked No. 9 in The Associated Press poll and after a 2-0 start climbed to No. 4, the program's first top-five ranking in some 40 years. Then the nightmare at South Carolina changed everything.

Snead -- the Texas transfer turned into the most promising Rebels quarterback since Eli Manning -- completed 7 of 21 passes for 107 yards in an offensively demoralizing 16-10 loss in a nationally televised Thursday night game.

When the ensuing AP poll was released, Mississippi tumbled all the way to No. 21. Three weeks into a season of sky-high expectations, the Rebels' dreams had crash-landed. Losses to Auburn, Alabama and then the real gut-turner at Mississippi State in the season finale kept the Rebels out of the final Top 25.

"Definitely, coming into this season we had high expectations, as I think a lot of people had high expectations for us," Snead said. "Obviously we had some letdowns and a couple of bumps along the way. There's some games we wished we had back."

Saturday's opponent in the 74th edition of the Cotton Bowl, No. 21 Oklahoma State, can relate. It was hoping for a season-ending victory over banged-up Oklahoma for a likely BCS bowl berth. But the Cowboys -- who dealt with the unfortunate saga of star receiver Dez Bryant and a late-season injury to senior quarterback Zac Robinson -- never had a chance and were shut out 27-0 for the first time since 2005.

But it's the holiday season; why harp on negatives? Both teams have shelved obvious disappointment and view Saturday's game as a shot at redemption.

"I think it's really big for us and can really help as far as getting us prepared for next season and hopefully getting us rolling," Snead said.

Snead will play in front of more than 50 friends and family from his hometown of Stephenville, located about 100 miles southwest of Dallas, where he became one of the most highly rated dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation.

It could be his final game with the Rebels. Despite throwing fewer touchdowns and more interceptions than he did last season, his first leading Mississippi, Snead is considering a jump to the NFL. He'll lose key weapons next season in running back Dexter McCluster and receiver Shay Hodge, plus the offensive line will need retooling.

The 6-foot-3, 220-pounder, who has a blazing arm but is criticized for his decision-making at times, said he'll talk to family, friends and coaches after Saturday's game to determine his next move. That his future is unsettled shouldn't come as a surprise. It's par for the course.

Snead never figured he'd quarterback Ole Miss. He originally committed to Urban Meyer and Florida until word came that Meyer was homing in on a fellow named Tim Tebow.

Growing up in agriculture country, Snead was raised a Texas A&M fan, but he chose archrival Texas. A true freshman in 2006, Snead competed with redshirt freshman Colt McCoy to become Vince Young's successor.

McCoy won the job, and Snead knew Texas wasn't big enough for the two of them. He researched programs with quarterback vacancies for 2008. He'd have to sit out 2007 to fulfill NCAA transfer rules. He chose Mississippi.

"It was extremely tough for me, just coming from where I was comfortable at the University of Texas," Snead said. "I had a bunch of friends there and it was tough for me to leave there and come here and also just to sit out a year and work as hard as I possibly can to help the team in practice, but not be able to help them on the field. That was really just extremely tough on me."

Snead threw for 2,762 yards and 26 touchdowns in 2008. He marched the Rebels into The Swamp and threw for two touchdowns and rushed for another for an especially sweet 31-30 win over Florida. Snead's signature victory also produced Tebow's famous postgame speech in which he apologized for losing and promised no one would work harder.

As much as Snead will remember that great win, this season's tough losses will stick with him, too. He threw four interceptions in a 22-3 loss to Alabama, two in a defeat to Auburn and three in the demoralizing regular-season-ender in Starkville.

"He puts a lot on himself; he wants to do good," Mississippi coach Houston Nutt said. "There's not too many quarterbacks that I've met, they don't want to throw interceptions, they really don't. He got on a run there where doubt can creep in and if you listen to the outside world they'll tell you that you're stinking it up.

"You look at Arkansas, Tennessee, LSU games; boy, there are some games where he really did a good job of executing, and when he's on that line of focus, he's a very good quarterback, but that's where he has to be and has to stay for us."

After each of its first three losses, Mississippi responded with wins against Vanderbilt, Alabama-Birmingham and Northern Arizona. With the Mississippi State loss still palpable, the Rebels face their toughest opponent yet in a bounce-back game.

"If anything, I feel like we took it and we realized that, 'Hey we really have to improve, we have a lot to do to get better,'" Snead said. "So we're going to take all we can from that game and focus on getting better, improving, and not let it happen again."

Jeff Caplan covers colleges for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.