Unfortunately, this year's Egg Bowl is shaping up to be one of the worst rivalry matchups in the football season. (The Apple Cup, between the University of Washington and Washington State, held that honor since the end of the last decade, but has now surpassed the Mississippi State-Ole Miss game in national relevance.)
The Ole Miss Rebels are the bigger disappointment based on the preseason hype. Their downward trajectory from an undeserved top-five ranking to the bottom of the SEC ranking has been sharp. Though head coach Houston Nutt has always been considered one of the most eccentric personalities in his position, he is now being labeled one of its worst front-runners, too. A look at his history and team philosophy helps to explain some of the problems that trouble the Rebels.
The last recruit by legendary coach Frank Broyles, Houston Nutt struggled to find his niche as a college quarterback first at Arkansas and later at Oklahoma State. After graduating from Oklahoma State, he took a position on Jimmy Johnson's staff there.
During his time in Stillwater, he developed running backs Thurman Thomas and Barry Sanders, and record-setting quarterback, Mike Gundy. Following stops at Murray State and Boise State, Nutt took the head-coaching job at Arkansas in 1997, where he put together a winning record in the SEC but never won the conference.
Most of his teams fell short because his development of quarterbacks stalled. The achievements of star running backs Darren McFadden and Felix Jones failed to overcome the meager production of quarterbacks Matt Jones, Casey Dick and Mitch Mustain, and this year Jevan Snead looks like another quarterback casualty.
Nutt's quarterbacks have not met expectations for a few reasons. Broyles' conservative influence looms large, as Nutt has relied on pro-style, tight sets to "run right, run left, and run up the middle," as a head coach.
But the strength of the 2009 Ole Miss team is at wide receiver. Though Snead had great success in the system in high school and does not break down defenses well, the team has relied on him to make complicated reads and has not implemented spread elements. Snead became a top recruit in Texas after producing prolifically in the spread at Stephenville High School.
Nutt himself does not possess great leadership qualities, passing on his share of responsibility for his team's shortcomings. For instance, as a head coach at Arkansas, Nutt burned through coordinators at an alarming pace. His last five seasons saw three different coordinators, all of whom brought different styles and strategies and none of which fit the personnel.
In 2006, after a disappointing season at Arkansas, Nutt fired his offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn. Who is the early favorite for the Frank Broyles Award for the best assistant coach in college football this year? That would be Malzahn, who has made Auburn one of the highest-scoring teams in the SEC and has written one of the most influential books in recent football theory,"The Hurry-Up No-Huddle: An Offensive Philosophy" (Coaches Choice, 2003, $19.95).
In his book, Malzahn advocates the no-huddle offense if a coach wants "to give your program a boost and to excite your players, coaches and fans," but Nutt had enough of both after two seasons. And, even though Malzahn is a passing guru, he originally implemented "the wildcat" to better utilize McFadden and Jones. It's dismaying to look at the two profile players that Malzahn brought with him from Springdale (Ark.) High School, the same two players who left after being misused in his system: University of Southern California and future NFL wide receiver Damian Williams and star recruit and USC back-up Mitch Mustain. This year, the poorly utilized resource is wide receiver Dexter McCluster.
Almost as important as the degree of inflexibility Nutt has shown as a coach are the situational decisions he makes. During Ole Miss' final drive against South Carolina, Nutt took Snead off the field and called a "wildcat" option-pass, with the ball in McCluster's hands. When the defense came crashing down on McCluster, a receiver came free down the right sideline, but the 5'8" wide receiver declined to try to make the deep throw and took a hard hit for a loss on the play. When Snead came back on the field, his team was down 16-10, he was facing third-and-long, and his best wide receiver had just been blasted. Predictably, they failed to convert for a first down.
Ole Miss football now faces two large systematic problems. First, there is a dearth of in-state talent for the next two recruiting classes; the window for big achievement is closing fast. Second, its head coach does not have the natural inclination to adapt his beliefs to his players and staff.
Even as Nutt blames the media for its unfair high expectations, he is looking in-house for scapegoats and sharpening the knife. I predict that Ole Miss offensive coordinator Kent Austin will not even celebrate the first anniversary of his hiring by his alma mater.
John Yargo is a freelance writer and novelist. He maintains the sports blog, The Irregular Season, at http://www.irregularseason.blogspot.com.