Sunday, October 26, 2003
Surprise! Ole Miss is SEC West front-runner
OXFORD, Miss. -- Eli Manning's senior season is working out
just the way he wanted.
While Auburn, LSU and Arkansas have been getting most of the
hype during the first two months of the season, Mississippi will
start November as the surprising front-runner in the SEC West.
The Rebels took a half-game lead over LSU and Auburn on Saturday
night with a 19-7 victory over the 21st-ranked Razorbacks.
Ole Miss (6-2, 4-0) is off to its best conference start in 33
years and the only team undefeated in SEC play. The Rebels moved
into The Associated Press poll Sunday for the first time this
season at No. 20.
"This is why I came back," Manning said. "To have a shot to
win the West."
The Rebels' star quarterback was just a bit player in their
Ole Miss' rejuvenated defense stifled the hurting Razorbacks and
kicker Jonathan Nichols continued his near-perfect season with four
Ole Miss held Arkansas (4-3, 1-3) scoreless in the second half.
The Razorbacks, who were playing without injured leading rusher
Cedric Cobbs, didn't get their initial first down of the second
half until there was less than four minutes to go.
A month ago, it seemed unimaginable that Ole Miss could beat a
good team with Manning throwing for just 145 yards and one
touchdown as he did against Arkansas.
Ole Miss finished September 2-2 with a defense that was
laughable. The Rebels ranked last in the nation in pass defense and
were allowing 32 points per game.
It's been a different story in October. The Rebels allowed 52
points while going 4-0.
The once beleaguered defenders say there has been no secret
formula to the turnaround.
"I think we just stepped up after those two losses,"
linebacker Justin Wade said. "We knew we really had to come
through when it counted. We became more focused. We're playing with
more tenacity and confidence than we ever have."
It didn't hurt that they played Arkansas without its top two
tailbacks -- Cobbs (hamstring) and De'Arrius Howard (ankle).
The makeshift backfield managed only 82 yards rushing -- 143
yards below its SEC-leading average coming in.
That left Matt Jones to shoulder the offense. It was too much to
ask of the elusive quarterback. Jones was 12-for-29 for 140 yards
with an interception.
Arkansas is heading in the opposite direction of Ole Miss. The
Razorbacks, who rose all the way to No. 7 in the rankings after a
4-0 start, have lost three straight. They dropped out of the
rankings on Sunday.
"It is frustrating," Arkansas coach Houston Nutt said. "We
have to get back to work. We need to get De'Arrius Howard and
Cedric Cobbs back."
Nichols kicked field goals of 20, 24, 42 and 25 yards, the final
two in the fourth quarter to seal the victory. He is 22-for-23 this
The Rebels conclude a four-game homestand Saturday against South
Carolina, looking to go 5-0 in the conference for the first time
since 1963. That was also the year the Rebels won an SEC title.
Since the SEC split into two divisions in 1992, Ole Miss is the
only Western Division team without a division title.
With games remaining against Auburn and LSU, the Rebels still
have a long way to go. But for now, they are the best in the West.
"It feels great," Wade said. "It's a new feeling, one we
haven't had for a while here."