College Football In Mississippi Begins...

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

bowl possibilities.

"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

rewarding thing."

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."