For the first time in a decade, almost
every football fan in Mississippi has reason for optimism as
preseason practice gets under way this weekend.
At fervent gatherings around the state last month coaches took
the lectern like preachers and the faithful hung on every word.
There's always a spirit of hope in the summer, but recent events
have pushed Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Southern Miss fans into
a state of unshakable optimism.
"It's awesome, it's an awesome feeling," new Ole Miss coach
Houston Nutt said of the rock-star reaction he's gotten since
replacing Ed Orgeron.
"I've been here before in this situation and you just want to
please. You want your players to be their best and give them the
best plan possible. That's what motivates you."
Nutt's hiring cleared away the pall that fell over the Rebels
during Orgeron's three seasons. Larry Fedora has used his tireless
energy and enthusiasm to win over a fan base at Southern Miss that
many considered fractured following the forced resignation of Jeff
And at Mississippi State, Sylvester Croom has delivered on his
promise to reverse the Bulldogs' withering fortunes.
While each of Mississippi's big three schools have some serious
questions facing them as players report for practice this week,
coaches, players and fans alike enter the season thinking about
"People are coming from everywhere now," Mississippi State
senior safety Derek Pegues said. "We really didn't realize we had
this many fans. People come up all the time and they're talking
national championships, SEC championships. It's pressure but, man,
we've been setting these goals since Day 1 when I stepped on the
field at Mississippi State."
The Bulldogs look to improve on an 8-5 season that included a
Liberty Bowl victory when they begin practice Sunday. Croom said
there's nothing easy about losing and Mississippi State hadn't won
more than three games in a season since 2000. Now, however, fans
are being rewarded for their uneasy patience after the coach guided
his team through NCAA probation and a difficult rebuilding process.
"A lot of the comments are not so much, 'We're glad about the
wins,' which everybody feels good about. They like the way we're
doing things," Croom said. "For me personally, that's the most
To reach their goal of a Bowl Championship Series bowl berth
this year, the Bulldogs will have to replace starters Mike Brown
and Anthony Johnson, who were lost to legal troubles, and fill in a
few holes on the defense.
But the work in front of them is minor compared to what the
Rebels and Golden Eagles must do. Both teams are installing new
schemes, acclimating to new coaches and trying to shake off the
disappointment of a season ago.
The Rebels open practice Monday and must figure out how to
regain traction after a winless season in the Southeastern
Conference. Nutt has a reputation as a winner with three SEC West
titles at Arkansas, but he recognizes there is work to be done in
Oxford after just 10 wins in three seasons under Orgeron.
Still the vibes have been more positive around the program than
at any time since a Manning was under center. Record attendance at
the spring game gave everyone a hint at the high hopes surrounding
Nutt's hire and coaches are making sure players feed into that
"They felt it in the spring," Nutt said. "We broke a record
in the spring and we keep reminding them. I've experienced this
before, so I think we can do it. But it's not easy. It's hard. So
we've got to keep working."
Unlike the state's two SEC schools, winning seasons aren't
foreign to Southern Miss fans. They had 14 straight under Bower,
but there was something missing last year when the Golden Eagles
stumbled to a 7-6 finish under Conference USA title expectations.
Looking to boost ticket sales and enthusiasm around the program,
athletic director Richard Giannini brought in Fedora, Oklahoma
State's offensive coordinator, to reinvigorate the program on the
eve of a stadium expansion.
With his whiz-bang spread offense and attack mantra, everybody
expected Fedora to excel on the field. But off the field he has won
over fans and players alike with his enthusiasm and confidence.
Along with a more difficult conditioning regime and a
complicated playbook, Fedora has won over his players by
implementing team-building activities away from the field like
laser tag. And the fans seem to love his attitude.
And why shouldn't they? Fedora expects to continue the winning
tradition Bower installed.
"I'll be honest with you, I have the highest expectations for
this football team," he said. "There's not going to be a game
where we go out on the field and I don't expect to win."