Thanks to the fine folks over at Red Solo Cup, an Ole Miss blog, to answer questions about the 2008 Cotton Bowl. You can find my answers here.
I think Houston Nutt is one helluva coach, talk about one or two things that Nutt did to make Ole Miss a significantly better team from last year?
The most important thing he did was make the game fun again. Coach Orgeron had left the program with a lot of quality players who just weren't having fun. On Houston Nutt's first day as a head coach, he delivered a sound bite the likes of which new coaches always deliver, saying "We want to have fun. You spell fun W-I-N." Of course, we thought that was a silly statement, and still do, but it did turn out to be true. Once the team realized what they were capable of (with the win against Florida) we saw a completely new team. Now, the Rebels play tough and inspired football. It's all because of the mindset change that Houston Nutt brought about.
Secondly, he brings innovation. We have a big-time playmaker in "lightning in a bottle" WR Dexter McCluster, but we weren't getting him the ball enough with conventional systems at WR. So Nutt put him in at QB in the "Wild Rebel" as well as playing him a good bit at running back. We were all skeptical when McCluster first came out in the I-formation, what with him being 180 pounds soaking wet, but he's actually quite good at running between the tackles. Once he finds a crease, he's gone. He still lines up at WR a good bit as well, and the only time you'll see a five-wide formation against us is when McCluster goes in motion out of a single-back formation. But McCluster is only one example of Nutt's innovation. Bradley Sowell is another. Sowell is a redshirt freshman LT who is being groomed to take Michael Oher's spot when Oher goes to the NFL. Sowell wasn't seeing much time at the tackle position this season though. Knowing that he would need to rely on Sowell next season, Nutt decided to move Sowell to TE where he could get used to blocking defensive ends while getting the help of the other linemen when he made mistakes. He doesn't start at TE or anything, but he sees a lot of time there and our running game flourishes when he's in the game.
Offensively and defensively, who is the biggest difference maker on the team?
Offensively, it's Dexter McCluster, who I've already talked about. Still, I'm going to talk a little more about him. This time, with statistics. McCluster is ninth in the SEC in all-purpose yards and didn't return kicks or punts. Among the five players above him who did not have return duties, four are running backs who don't play in a by-committee system. The only player above him who shares his skill set (WR/RB) is Percy Harvin who has only ten more yards of offense per game. McCluster has a chance to go the distance on every play. He's absolutely fantastic in space, and I can't believe more teams didn't take a chance on him during his recruitment.
Defensively, it's our first team All-American DT Peria Jerry. Jerry has a DE's skill set with a DT's body. He's fifth in the SEC in sacks with six and first in TFLs with seventeen. But the stats under-play the season he has had. Jerry is in the backfield on almost every play. He hits the quarterback four or five times a game and is in his face all the time. He didn't play in the first three games, and we missed him. When he got back, our defensive line started to live up to their potential. Now, they're insane.
You're an opposing offensive coordinator, what do you do to combat the tremendous Rebel defensive line?
Well, I'm going to talk about this as if this is our starting group.
DE: Greg Hardy / Kentrell Lockett
DT: Peria Jerry / Lawonn Scott
If I'm scheming against this line, I double team Peria Jerry and Greg Hardy. That means your TE has to stay in and help block, but trust me... it's worth it. Without him, you're leaving one of those two with only one opposing player to deal with, and their speed is uncanny. No guard can block Peria on his own, and Greg Hardy frustrates OTs.
It could be that the TT system of blocking will be very effective against us. By spacing the line out, you make it more difficult for Hardy to get to GH. Still, I have to question what that will do for Peria Jerry. I'm sure you know better than I do, but it seems like if your offensive line is spaced out too much, a DT with Jerry's speed/size might be able to get through your line having only gone through a guard. If that's the case, he'll flush Harrell out of the pocket regularly.
Talk a little about the Wild-Rebel formation and what you think will be it's effect on the game on Friday?
I personally believe that the Wild-Rebel is over-emphasized when game-planning against us. We generally only run three to five plays out of it, and two or three are just typical runs up the middle. Sure, the runs to the outside can be confusing, but they're really nothing more than zone reads with two running backs instead of a QB/RB combo. Still, you asked.
I think that we'll probably have two long runs out of it. 25-30 yards each. If Brandon Bolden gets past your linebackers, you're in for loads of trouble. He's a punishing runner with speed as well. I mention him because he's the only other Rebel who is used in the Wild Rebel formation (save for a few trick plays that the coaches have used). McCluster is your biggest problem though. You'll have to try to spy him with the fastest player on your team. If he turns the corner with green in front of him, it's a touchdown.
Ole Miss wins because . . .
Let me first say that I wouldn't bet my saving that Ole Miss wins this game. I think we will, but I'm not one of those ridiculous fans who thinks the Big XII is really overrated (though you'd have to say that Oklahoma State is). I think that Texas Tech is a phenomenal team that should be playing in a better bowl than the Cotton Bowl. However, I do believe that we will win this game. And here's why.
I think that our defensive line will be able to put a little bit of pressure on you, forcing Harrell to make just a few ill-advised decisions. Hopefully, we can capitalize off of those few decisions. Also, I believe that Jevan Snead probably won't have too much trouble with your defense. I'm not downplaying your defense as much as you think I am. I think they're the reason that TT is 11-1. Still, I do believe that Snead has seen better defenses this season. LSU, Alabama, Florida, and maybe South Carolina are all pretty ridiculous. Anyway, the only time this season that Jevan has really faltered was against Vanderbilt, and that was the fourth game of the season. He has grown by leaps and bounds since then. He throws the ball on a rope now, and his deep balls hit our 4.25 6'1 WR Mike Wallace in stride. Wallace isn't Michael Crabtree, but he runs a fade better than anyone I've seen in a long time.
You won't be able to run on us. You just won't. All-SEC HB Charles Scott of LSU had ten carries for ten yards against us. Mississippi State as a team had 26 carries for -51 yards against us in our final game of the regular season. Now, I'm sure you'll do much better than that, but I doubt you'll eclipse 100 yards.
Because of that, I think we'll win a close one. 37-34.