Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Houston Nutt: Early Favorite for SEC Coach of the Year

What? In the conference where $2 million per year is for the bottom feeder coaches, Houston Nutt has a great chance to win the SEC Coach of the Year honor for the second time in three years. Ole Miss seems to be a sexy sleeper pick for the upcoming season, and things seem to be lined up for the new Rebel leader to make quite a bit of noise in 2008.

Not as much because he’s the best of the twelve – he’s definitely not – but the voting for Coach of the Year rewards improvement over the prior year more than any thing else. Sly Croom won last year for taking his Bulldogs to the Liberty Bowl after six years in the cellar. Nutt himself won in 2006 for getting the Hogs back to a winning season following 5-6 and 4-7 campaigns the previous two years. And lucky for Nutt, helping Ole Miss improve over last year will be a cakewalk. For Houston Nutt to be better than his predecessor, he only has to talk coherently, be sober, or just act sober.

Sometimes, a change in attitude is the perfect recipe for success at a college football program. Almost every year, it seems a program sets the world on fire with a first-year head coach. Arizona State did it last year, Charlie Weiss and Ty Willingham both did it at that overrated school in Indiana, and Zook did it at Gaines – well, maybe it doesn’t always work. Houston himself was able to start out 8-0 in 1998 at Arkansas, though. And while some fans may not like his rah rah style, it does produce more than its fair share of moments. Whatever style and culture Nutt brings to Oxford, it will certainly get the players attention. The players will likely buy whatever he and his staff are selling. The only culture they’ve known since Supermanning left has been losing.

Another piece in place for him to win in his first year is the players he inherited. His players aren’t just hungry; they have plenty of talent. Both the O-line and D-line have two all-SEC selections. Michael Oher and Greg Hardy are included in those groups, and both might be the best in the SEC at their spots. These groups should improve quite a bit over last year, too. If you ask any Hog fan if they were sad to see Nutt leave, the answers will be mixed at best. But if you ask any Hog fan if they were sad to see offensive line coach Mike Markuson or defensive line coach Tracy Rocker leave, just about all of them would say yes. Both Markuson and Rocker seemed to do more with less every year.

The list above doesn’t even include 21-year old freshman defensive monster tackle Jerrell Powe, who was finally determined to read on a 13th grade level. Other notables include QB Jevan Sneed and freshman RB Enrique Davis, two players yet to see the field in Oxford but who should get all-SEC looks by the end of the year.

Finally, the Ole Miss schedule sets up nicely for a quick start. The first four games are Memphis, at Wake Forest, Samford, and Vandy. The Wake game will be a strong early test for Nutt’s new team, but a win there would set them up for a 4-0 start and a top-25 ranking heading to Gainesville on September 27.

After that, Nutt is going to have to get some upsets to keep the Rebel fans believing he is everything they hoped he would be. To his credit, upsets along the way are probable for any Nutt-coached team. Arkansas had its share of upset wins the past few years, including at #1 LSU, at #2 Auburn, and at #5 Texas. Nutt wasn’t necessarily able to win the biggest games he was involved in, but there was something about his three plays that kept the Hogs in most big games. The Rebels will be ready to enact four years of payback on their entire schedule. Expect them to get at least one win from Florida, Auburn, or LSU, the three toughest games on their slate.
Its unlikely Nutt would be able to stay undefeated through September, but some good showings in losses and a few upset wins along the way would put him at the top of the ballot for the Coach of the Year voting in December.

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