The most frustrating part for Ole Miss this season was that a bowl game was supposed to be built into the schedule.
That's how accommodating the Rebels' schedule looked back in August. Four of the first five games were at home, and the only road date in that stretch was at Tulane. Ole Miss figured to be favored in all of the home games, too, against FCS foe Jacksonville State, Vanderbilt, Fresno State and Kentucky.
Even better, there was a bye week after those first five games heading into the Alabama game.
Going to Tuscaloosa with a 5-0 record, not to mention some momentum and some rest, seemed like a logical expectation.
In the SEC, there's no such thing as logical expectations.
Sure enough, there was drama in the Ole Miss camp the week of the first game. Coach Houston Nutt made the decision to bring in Jeremiah Masoli at quarterback following his troubled past at Oregon. Initially, Masoli was ruled ineligible this season, but won an appeal a few days before the opener.
From that point on, there were very few wins for Ole Miss, which limped to a 4-8 finish.
The Rebels lost 49-48 in double overtime in the opener to Jacksonville State, a shocking loss and a telling loss. The strength of this team was supposed to be the front seven on defense, and the middle of the Rebels' defensive front played pretty well most of the season. But junior college newcomer Wayne Dorsey struggled at end, and when senior Kentrell Lockett went down at the other end with a knee injury, the Rebels were hurting on the edge. (Lockett has applied for a sixth year of eligibility.)
They were hurting even more in the secondary, where they struggled to cover people and gave up a ton of big plays.
Their final defensive numbers were ugly. They finished last in the SEC in scoring defense, giving up a league-high 52 touchdowns, and were 11th in total defense. They were also last in pass efficiency defense and gave up a league-high 24 touchdown passes.
The Rebels allowed 31 or more points in six of their eight SEC games, which means they were always having to outscore teams. That's never a good thing in this league.
In reality, they never fully recovered from their brutal start. Not only did they lose to Jacksonville State, but they lost two weeks later at home to Vanderbilt by two touchdowns.
During the middle part of the season, Ole Miss did seem to compete better and play some teams tougher. But then came the 52-14 embarrassment at Tennessee where the Rebels all but quit in the second half.
Injuries played a key role in how poorly the Rebels played on defense this season. It's a defense that had played lights out the previous two seasons under defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix.
Growing up in the secondary and getting better back there will be critical next season if the Rebels are going to get back to where they were defensively in 2008 and 2009. They also need more production from their defensive ends.
Nutt took some heat for bringing in Masoli in the first place. How much that affected team chemistry is debatable, but Masoli's gone now. Nathan Stanley had won the job before Masoli came aboard. He'll get his shot next season to lead this team unless junior college newcomer Zach Stoudt beats him out. There's also multi-purpose threat Randall Mackey, who was redshirted last season, and there's talk that West Virginia's Barry Brunetti is considering transferring to Ole Miss.
The Rebels showed a lot of promise in their offensive line this season, and junior running back Brandon Bolden had a breakout season both running and catching the ball.
Nutt has already said himself that there were too many off-the-field issues. He had to suspend several players and vows to crack down on the discipline issue.
The Rebels' schedule next season is more difficult. They open at home against Brigham Young and also have Georgia at home and then a trip to Fresno State, all during the first five weeks of the season.
If they come out of that stretch with two or more losses, it's going to be an uphill climb again to get to six wins and qualify for a bowl game.
Not much will be expected from the Rebels next season, and Nutt has traditionally been at his best in that underdog role. That said, look for Ole Miss to bounce back next season with its third bowl appearance in four seasons under Nutt.
Nix isn't going to have two bad defenses in a row. And on offense, the running game should be even more explosive in 2011.