OXFORD - Houston Nutt was a respected football coach before last season, though his maiden voyage with Ole Miss certainly enhanced his resume.

The win over Florida, the Rebels’ first against an SEC opponent since the 2006 finale, took on a life of its own after the tearful apology and promise of better times from Gators quarterback Tim Tebow.

The win over LSU was equally impressive, though the Rebels were a much different team – a much more confident team – when they pounded the Tigers in Baton Rouge.

Nutt was asked more than once about both wins at Media Days last week.

The 2008 season was a capsule look at how Nutt has been branded as a head coach – the underdog who achieves when he isn’t supposed to.

That’s one of the interesting angles on 2009. This team is supposed to win.

Nutt has had teams like this before. He cites injuries for times when those teams didn’t live up to preseason hype.

Take away a couple of players – say Dexter McCluster and Greg Hardy escaped largely unscathed from a fiery car crash near Pontotoc earlier this month – and this is a different Ole Miss team.

“To think of not having those two guys for the season is a nightmare, because it changes your team,” Nutt said.

It was after the accident that one Ole Miss fan emailed me to say his next contribution to the loyalty foundation would be earmarked for bubble wrap for all football players until the Sept. 6 opener at Memphis.

The Rebels went through a rash of injuries last preseason but were pretty healthy – and in prime condition thanks to strength coach Don Decker, says Nutt – when they beat LSU.

“As a defensive coach playing that offense you knew you better strap it on,” says Ole Miss defensive line coach Terry Price, who opposed Nutt’s teams while at Auburn for 10 seasons. “It was going to be a fourth-quarter football game, and they were going to try to physically beat you down.”

Staying healthy is Goal No. 1 for everybody. That’s especially true for Ole Miss along the offensive line where depth is thin, and left tackle is a question mark.

It’s Price’s defensive line that will have to take the lead in opponent beatdowns this season.

Yes, opponent beatdowns. They’re expected. It seems almost strange for a program that has to reach back to the ’60s to match expectations it has right now. But this is the persona the Rebels showed in closing 2008 with six straight wins, most in dominating fashion.

Most of the players who led the way last year are back, including quarterback Jevan Snead, who could possibly be the first player taken in the NFL draft next spring. Most of those players, right now, are healthy.

Advancing the cause is a schedule that does not include SEC Eastern elites Florida and Georgia or a non-conference BCS-level foe. While this fact may contribute to a beatdown along the way, it could be a major stumbling block if the Rebels are in contention for an at-large bid to a BCS bowl.

Yes, all that stands between Ole Miss and glory are folks like South Carolina, Alabama, LSU, Tennessee and a few others.

How hard could this be?

Parrish Alford (parrish.alford@djournal.com) covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs about the Rebels daily at NeMs360.com.

Parrish Alford/ NEMS Daily Journal

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