Key stretch: at Alabama (Oct. 16), at Arkansas (Oct. 23), Auburn (Oct. 30).
Analysis: In a lot of ways, this is where Ole Miss’ schedule really begins. The Rebels have an excellent shot of being at least 4-1, and maybe even 5-0, when they hit the teeth of their schedule, starting with back-to-back road trips to Alabama and Arkansas. Ole Miss has lost six in a row to Alabama, but Houston Nutt has won both of his meetings against Arkansas since leaving the Ozarks for Ole Miss. The third leg in this stretch brings the Rebels back home to face Auburn, which thumped Ole Miss a year ago on the Plains. The Rebels will have to play well to win any of these three games. That goes without saying, but the good news is that they should go into this stretch with some momentum. Plus, their younger, less experienced players will have a chance to get used to their enhanced roles on the team in those first five games.
Prediction: The Rebels have won nine games each of the past two seasons, the first time that’s happened since the John Vaught era in 1961 and 1962. If they could manage to win two games in this stretch, a third straight season of nine or more wins would be very possible. Even winning one of the three could set Ole Miss up to be in position to win nine or more games heading into the bowl game. The Rebels cannot afford to lose all of them, because that puts too much pressure on those final three games against Tennessee, LSU and Mississippi State. Both the Tennessee and LSU games are on the road. The bottom line: Ole Miss needs to be at least 6-3 coming out of those first nine games, which includes a “built-in” win against Louisiana-Lafayette in Game No. 9.