Rebels ready for resounding SEC yell

The excitement in Mississippi right now is like the humidity: can't see it, can't touch it, but you sure can feel it.

This, say fans of the Ole Miss Rebels, is finally our year.

"I've never seen so much optimism," said columnist Rick Cleveland, a Mississippi native who has covered sports at the Jackson Clarion-Ledger for 29 years.

The last time it was the Rebels' year in the Southeastern Conference, the league had no African-American football players. And Bear Bryant's career arc was still on the way up. And Steve Spurrier was a freshman at Florida.

It's been 46 years, to be precise, since the Rebels' last SEC title -- the last of six won by legendary coach John Vaught.

Clearly, much has changed since then. And Mississippi's historic resistance to change has had much to do with the ongoing title drought.

It was one of the last schools in the league to integrate its football team, in 1972, and Ole Miss coaches were continually frustrated in recruiting black players amid the Old South trappings that clung to the program: the band playing "Dixie," legions of fans waving confederate flags at home games, and a Colonel Reb mascot who evoked a plantation owner's image. If the school had landed just some of the in-state black superstars who instead played elsewhere for whatever reason -- Harold Jackson, L.C. Greenwood, Walter Payton, Sammy Winder, Hugh Green, Jerry Rice, Steve McNair, etc. -- how different might its history be?

But Ole Miss has played an energetic game of cultural catch-up in recent years, wiping out the totems of a racist time. Thanks in large part to the efforts of freshly retired chancellor Robert Khayat, it no longer feels like 1963 at an Ole Miss home game -- though they'd love to taste that level of success again.

"Ole Miss clearly had a harder time dealing with integration than anyone else because of the symbols," Cleveland said. "Having said that, they've overcome it now. You used to see 30,000 people waving confederate flags. Now you may see one guy who snuck one in."

Now a modernized Mississippi is coming off last season's 9-4 breakthrough, highlighted by an upset of eventual national champion Florida. Riding a six-game winning streak and returning 16 starters, led by potential Heisman Trophy candidate Jevan Snead at quarterback, the Rebels have earned their highest preseason ranking (eighth in the AP poll) in 39 years. Season-ticket sales stand at a record-shattering 49,000.

"There's a great buzz going around our program right now," Snead said.

But before dreaming of again taking down Florida and taking the crown in Atlanta this December, the Rebels first must figure out how to get to Atlanta. That's been impossible enough in its own right.

Since the SEC split into two divisions in 1992, five teams have represented the West in the title game. One team has not.

Alabama has won the West six times, LSU four, Auburn three, Arkansas three. And, the real killer for Ole Miss: bitter rival Mississippi State even got there once, in 1998.

"And the State people throw it at them all the time," Cleveland said.

The closest Ole Miss came to Atlanta was 2003, when the Rebels actually tied for the division title. But they came up three points short on a November night in Oxford -- three points from what could have been an outright SEC West championship and an unbeaten league record. Instead, LSU shut down Eli Manning and the Rebs 17-14 on its way to a national title. Ole Miss shuffled off to the Cotton Bowl.

Since then the angst over being the only division member left out of the glory has steadily escalated, eventually morphing into insanity. A year after that 10-3 season in '03, the school fired David Cutcliffe for going 4-7 -- his only losing season in six years on the job.

The Rebels took a swing at Bobby Petrino and missed, then made the brilliant decision to hire Ed Orgeron -- a recruiting dynamo who proved to be a miserably incapable head coach. Orgeron went 10-25 and was swiftly canned after blowing a game against Mississippi State.

Then the school lucked into Houston Nutt, who fled a toxic situation at Arkansas for Oxford and found all of Orgeron's recruits just waiting for some competent coaching. He delivered it last season -- and now, blessed with a schedule built for success, the Rebels believe (hope? pray?) that their time has come at last.

Which is why Nutt was asked at SEC media days last month: make it to Atlanta or the season's a bust?

"I wouldn't say that," Nutt said. "I wouldn't say that. For a team that had four previous losing seasons, I wouldn't say that. I think our team is on the rise. I think there's some good things that are happening. … You just feel like things are getting ready to happen and we're excited. But I wouldn't say, 'Okay, Atlanta or it's really a downer.' I don't believe that."

Even if Nutt did believe it, he's wise not to say it. His own coaching history shows that his teams perform better when expectations are lower.

The two Arkansas teams he took to Atlanta for the SEC championship game were picked to finish fifth (in 2002) and fourth (in 2006). His first team in Fayetteville was picked last and wound up tied for first (1998). And last year's Ole Miss team was picked fifth and finished second.

But when the Razorbacks were picked to win the West in 1999, they went 4-4 and tied for third. The 2007 team, with current NFL studs Darren McFadden and Felix Jones in the same backfield, went 4-4 in league play.

Perhaps with that in mind, Nutt pulled the plug on a reality TV series on the Ole Miss August camp. In early July the school announced an agreement to participate in the series, and by mid-August Nutt said the school was backing out.

The only conceivable good that could have come from embracing such a series was a slight bump in exposure and getting the players accustomed to having a lot of TV cameras around -- which, if this season goes well, could be an increasing phenomenon. But the potential for distraction or an outbreak of superstar syndrome outweighed the benefits. Nutt is well aware of the added burden of great expectations the Rebels bring into 2009.

"Well, it's a fact," he said. "It's a fact. Last year, the same group of experts picked us towards the bottom. Same group of experts are now picking us towards the top. We tell our team, 'What does that mean? Doesn't mean anything.'"

To Mississippi fans waiting eternally to join the SEC Big Boy Club, it means everything right now. But they want the current palpable excitement in the air to still be there come December.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.