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November 26, 2008

Nutt having solid first year at Ole Miss

Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Could that be why maniacal fans, driven crazy when their teams continuously lose, are so quick to demand a change in coaches? Are the inevitable complaints, airborne banners, Web sites and other creative ways to demand a coach's ouster just signs of mental health?

Um probably not. Besides, coaching changes don't necessarily produce different results.

Sometimes, though, a change proves to be a rational move. Nowhere has that been more evident than at Ole Miss, where Houston Nutt has wrought an impressive reversal of fortune.

The Rebels, who play rival Mississippi State on Friday, have improved by four victories and will make their first bowl appearance in five years.

"When I first got in here, I really liked this team," Nutt said. "I felt at some spots there were some very good athletes that the previous staff had recruited. There were also some big holes.

"My biggest concern was there were a lot of individuals. This wasn't a team. Everybody was very selfish. That's when I knew what we had to do. I told our coaches the biggest problem was not how high they could jump or fast they could run we had those but to be a team. I just didn't see them caring like they should."

Nutt said he felt significant progress was made during spring practice and during two-a-days, and he could see possibilities after a disappointing but encouraging 30-28 loss to Wake Forest on Sept. 6.

"Not until the Wake Forest game did I see we could be a good football team," Nutt said. "We had a recipe for losing. We found a way to lose a fumble, an interception, hitting the guy out of bounds at the worst possible time, jumping offsides.

"After the Wake Forest game, I made a statement that if we started playing a little smarter and weren't so charitable, we could play with any team in the country."

He was proven prophetic three weeks later when the Rebels upset Florida 31-30 in Gainesville.

Nutt is one of 18 new coaches this season, and he has made the biggest difference.

Ole Miss managed just three victories in each of the past three seasons. In that span, the Rebels posted one victory over an SEC opponent. This season, Ole Miss is 7-4 with victories over Florida and LSU the past two national champions and is bowl-bound for the first time since 2003. The Rebels likely would clinch a spot in the Cotton Bowl with a victory Friday.

But as impressive as the season has been, it was tantalizingly close to being much better. Wake Forest beat the Rebels on a last-second field goal that was set up by a controversial pass interference call. A fumble at the goal line thwarted the Rebels in a 23-17 loss to Vanderbilt. Three turnovers including a fumble returned for a touchdown crippled them in a 31-24 loss to South Carolina. And a rally fell short in a 24-20 loss to Alabama.

"We lost some close games we should have won," Nutt said. "We had two games (Vandy and South Carolina) slip away because of the ingredients for losing, and we had to get that turned.

"Once we got that going, our seniors guys like Michael Oher, Jamarca Sanford and Peria Jerry took ownership of the team and have just been awesome. We could easily be sitting here in the top five in the country, but our team wasn't ready for that."

Nutt said the victories have gotten the attention of potential recruits.

Of course, immediate results don't always translate to lasting success. Larry Coker won the national championship in his first season at Miami but was fired five years later.

By the same token, a rough start doesn't mean tough times will remain. Joe Paterno was 5-5 in 1966 his first season as Penn State's coach and Virginia Tech went 2-9 in its first season under Frank Beamer.

So, no matter how positive or negative a first year under a new coach turns out to be, nothing can be assured for the future. That uncertainty is enough to drive some fans crazy.

First impressions

Here's a breakdown of the impacts made by first-year coaches this season.

Rumbling

Nutt, Ole Miss: With a victory over Mississippi State and in the bowl game, the Rebels could equal their victory total of the previous three seasons combined.

Paul Johnson, Georgia Tech: Despite losing most of the 2007 starters including the quarterback and leading rusher the Yellow Jackets already have more wins (eight) than they had last season (seven).

Bo Pelini, Nebraska: The Huskers should finish second in the Big 12 North and could finish tied for first. They managed five wins in '07 and nine is realistic this season.

Art Briles, Baylor: The Bears have only four victories, but they're not the pushovers they once were, which was obvious in a 31-28 loss to Missouri. A three-touchdown victory over Texas A&M offers more proof.

Greg McMackin, Hawaii: The Warriors lost most of their key starters from '07 primarily quarterback Colt Brennan and faced a more demanding schedule. Yet, they're one win from bowl eligibility.

Jerry Kill, Northern Illinois: Six victories is major improvement for the Huskies, who went 2-10 a year ago. Four of their losses were by four or fewer points.

Ken Niumatalolo, Navy: Despite injuries at quarterback, Navy remains a solid team. The 6-4 Midshipmen again are bowl eligible and have a shot at improving on last season's eight-win total.

Kevin Sumlin, Houston: After a slow start, the Cougars have won six of their past seven and are tied for the lead in the Conference USA West Division.

Steve Fairchild, Colorado State: Six victories usually isn't reason to get excited, but that's three more than the Rams posted a year ago. Plus, they're bowl-bound.

Larry Fedora, Southern Miss: A victory over SMU on Saturday will clinch bowl eligibility.

David Cutcliffe, Duke: Four wins might not seem like much, but it equals Duke's victory total of the past four years combined.

Stumbling

Rich Rodriguez, Michigan: So much offensive talent from '07 was lost that dip in a production was expected, but a loss to Toledo?

Bobby Petrino, Arkansas: A drastic change of scheme, suspensions and lost talent from '07 put Petrino in a difficult spot. The Razorbacks have gotten better as the season has progressed. Still, it has been a disappointing year. An upset of LSU on Friday could change this appraisal.

Rick Neuheisel, UCLA: Quarterback injuries can't be blamed for UCLA's mere four wins. They had those problems last year and managed six wins. The Bruins still could get to six, but that would require winning their last two, against Arizona State and USC. UCLA's four wins have come against opponents with a combined 11 victories.

Mike Sherman, Texas A&M: True, the Aggies have struggled frequently in recent seasons. But a home-field loss to Arkansas State and a three-touchdown loss to Baylor makes '08 a monumentally disappointing season.

June Jones, SMU: A one-win season which is a distinct possibility isn't good, no matter the circumstances.

Paul Wulff, Washington State: Injuries to the quarterbacks were devastating, but that doesn't explain the abysmal defense. At least the Cougars won the Apple Cup.

Bill Stewart, West Virginia: The Mountaineers are good. No question. But they're not as scary as in recent seasons. Three losses are the most at West Virginia since 2004, and there still are two games to be played.

Random thoughts and observations

Tennessee strong safety Eric Berry may be the best all-around player in college football. He has seven interceptions, which he has returned for 265 yards and two touchdowns. Only two Tennessee receivers have that much receiving yardage and only one has more receiving touchdowns.

Should Oklahoma defeat Oklahoma State on Saturday, it is widely presumed the Sooners will vault ahead of Texas in the BCS standings and thus play for the Big 12 championship against Missouri. That might not seem fair, but many feel OU has an edge based on playing TCU and Cincinnati in non-conference games. But it should be noted that Texas' non-conference opponents have a better combined record (22-22) than Oklahoma's (20-26).

There surely is great excitement in Manhattan, Kan., surrounding the return of coach Bill Snyder. Snyder transformed Kansas State's program from a perennial doormat into a national championship contender. But he is 69. And in his last two seasons (2004 and 2005), the Wildcats went 4-7 and 5-6.

The "coach-in-waiting" deal that Will Muschamp made to become Mack Brown's successor as Texas' coach will ensure that three of the Longhorns' past four defensive coordinators will take over programs. The Longhorns hope Muschamp fares better than the other two. Greg Robinson recently was fired as Syracuse's coach, and Gene Chizik is 5-19 in two seasons at Iowa State.

The trend of ranked ACC teams losing continued last week. All three ranked ACC teams lost for the second consecutive week. In fact, ranked ACC teams are 1-10 over the past four weeks. The one win was No. 19 North Carolina's 28-7 victory over No. 20 Georgia Tech on Nov. 8.

Back when Rutgers was 1-5 some were questioning coach Greg Schiano's decision to turn down higher-profile jobs in recent years. But Rutgers has won five in a row and Schiano has the Knights headed to another bowl. Clearly, he knows what he's doing.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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