BY PARRISH ALFORD
DALLAS - There are better ways to pick a fight than by calling out the champ.
That in essence will be what Ole Miss is doing, simply by playing its game, when the 20th-ranked Rebels take on No. 8 Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl today.
Texas Tech's vaunted spread offense has produced All-Americans in quarterback Graham Harrell and wide receiver Michael Crabtree, the two-time Biletnikoff Award winner as America's best at the position.
The Red Raiders' have the nation's top passing offense with 417.25 yards a game.
Ole Miss, meanwhile, ranks 11th in the SEC in pass defense with 209.83 yards a game allowed.
When the facts are on the table the Rebels' cornerbacks - a three-man rotation of Marshay Green, Dustin Mouzon and Cassius Vaughn - simply say "bring it on."
"There's no doubt in my mind my group, these cornerbacks and safeties, these linebackers, can run with those boys," Mouzon says. "We've run with the best in the SEC in Alabama, LSU and Florida.
"People will put us as underdogs and say we're not worthy of playing them, but you have to want to be here. If we're the underdogs, there's more pressure on them."
Pass coverage for Ole Miss will begin with its defensive line and how much pressure it can produce to disrupt Harrell, who completed 71.5 percent of his passes for 4,747 yards.
The attacking style of defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix often leaves his cornerbacks and safeties in 1-on-1 coverage.
"When I see man coverage I think touchdown," Crabtree says.
Harrell threw 41 of those, 18 of them to Crabtree, none more famous and replayed than Crabtree's final-seconds catch and sideline dance against Texas that put the Red Raiders in the heart of the BCS discussion and ultimately earned them a share of the Big 12 South title.
"When Crab sees man coverage it's like a challenge to him. It's like they're taking a shot at him, saying We can man you up,'" Harrell said.
"I'm looking forward to seeing how much man they'll play," Crabtree said. "That's what I like seeing."
While the Rebels have given up their yards, they've improved down the stretch.
They finished the regular season ranked eighth in the SEC in pass defense efficiency - which calculates completion percentage, touchdowns and interceptions as well as yardage -- with a 118.91 rating. The Rebels have intercepted nine passes over the life of their current five-game win streak.
"Texas Tech has great players, but everybody on this team has confidence in each other," Green said. "If we work our techniques we'll have a good game."
Having studied Ole Miss for a month now, Harrell downplays the numbers.
"You're going to give up some big plays when you play man coverage, and they have some great athletes in the secondary," he said. "With their D-line as good as it is, that helps too. Obviously you can't throw the ball with people in your face."
That's what Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt ultimately wants to see.
The Red Raiders will get their yards, their big plays.
Ole Miss defensive backs won't make every play every time, but will they make enough plays over the course of the game to help the Rebels get the win?
Nutt stops short of sharing the enthusiasm of Mouzon and Green.
"That's the thing that concerns you the most," he said. "Their receivers are outstanding, strong and big. They understand the system. They know it. They know what their coach wants, the timing and all. It's going to be tough."