When Houston Nutt won 9 games and a Cotton Bowl during his first season in Oxford in 2008, the future looked bright. The Rebels had a returning quarterback who’d thrown 26 touchdown passes the year prior, a backfield duo of Dexter McCluster and Brandon Bolden that looked more than capable, and a defense that had improved by 9.5 points per game from the year prior to Nutt’s arrival and his first season.

All the makings were there, and Ole Miss received a preseason No. 8 ranking in the AP poll. It was only the third time Ole Miss had opened a season ranked inside the AP Top 25 since the John Vaught days, and it was by far the highest they’d been slotted in the preseason.

Nutt’s second team won another Cotton Bowl in 2009, but by mid-October they’d fallen out of the AP poll entirely.

Ole Miss climbed up to fourth in the country after a 2-0 start, but a 16-10 loss to South Carolina brought it crashing back to earth. Two weeks later, Ole Miss was crushed by Alabama. The Rebels would go on to lose to Auburn and Mississippi State that year, finishing 9-4. The returning quarterback threw 20 interceptions. The defense marginally improved and the offense took a step back.

Nutt won just 6 more games before being fired.

The weight of expectation is a different kind of pressure.

And when Lane Kiffin jokes about rat poison, it’s done so with that exact sort of pitfall in mind. Taking the step from good to great is tough. Taking the step from great to championship-caliber is tougher. Ole Miss won a program record 11 games last season, finished with a second AP Top 10 ranking in 3 years, and won the Peach Bowl.

Kiffin’s fifth year in Oxford looms as a program-changing one. Ole Miss will almost certainly challenge that eighth-place ranking in 2009 for the highest preseason ranking since the Vaught days. The Rebels are everywhere.

“First-time Playoff teams” lists are spattered with Ole Miss. Stories about “breakthrough teams” mention the No. 1 transfer class in the country and the NIL investment Ole Miss made to make such a haul possible. Power rankings put Kiffin’s group firmly in the top 10.

At FanDuel, Ole Miss is +1500 to win a national championship next fall. Only 4 teams — Georgia, Ohio State, Texas, Oregon — have shorter odds. DraftKings has the same price.

A $100 bet on Ole Miss to make the CFP only wins $76.92 at DraftKings.

The Rebels’ win total is set at 9.5 by both books. At ESPN Bet, the over on 9.5 wins has -130 odds.

For the first time in his tenure, Kiffin’s Rebels have expectations of something greater.

And those are born from 2 things — the schedule and the talent.

The nonconference provides a cakewalk. Ole Miss hosts Furman and Middle Tennessee State to begin the year. The Rebels will travel to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to face Wake Forest on Sept. 14, but the Demon Deacons are 78th in preseason SP+ and not expected to provide much of a challenge.

Through the first half of the season, Ole Miss will only face 1 team (Kentucky) inside the SP+ top 40. Over the last 6 games, the Rebels will face 4 such teams, including 3 inside the top 15.

But even those games provide some hope. Oklahoma has to come to The Grove. Georgia does as well. And the Egg Bowl will be played at home. The Rebels are 19-2 at home over the last 3 years.

Ole Miss should be 6-0 when it heads to Death Valley on Oct. 12. From there, we could see a team that believes a special season is possible, and the value that provides is hard to quantify but certainly exists.

Of course, the Rebels also have the talent to back all this talk up. Kiffin brought in the No. 2 transfer class in the country last year, and he produced the No. 1 class this time around. High school recruiting hasn’t rivaled that of Georgia or Alabama within the SEC, but the emphasis has been more on adding players who can jump in and fill a role immediately rather than adding youngsters who need some seasoning before they can be relied on.

Kiffin is all in on this 2024 season.

He has a quarterback entering his third season as a full-time starter for Kiffin, a player in Jaxson Dart who some believe can be a Heisman contender in the new year. He has a loaded receiver room and a well-stocked running back rotation. And he should have his best defense yet.

“Ole Miss … has more NFL-ready talent than at any point in Ole Miss school history. This team, I haven’t seen any more NFL-ready talent on any NFL roster,” Roman Harper said recently on The Paul Finebaum Show. “You’ve got guys that are going to play on Sundays. … Now, what do you do with that?”

It’s a fair assessment. The difference between Ole Miss teams of old and this particular group might best be illustrated in the front 7. This group looks different. And that’s by design.

The 2023 high school class introduced 5-star defensive end Suntarine Perkins. The 2024 transfer haul brought Walter Nolen (Texas A&M), Princely Umanmielen (Florida), and Chris Hardie (Jacksonville State) to fortify the defensive front. This was the weak point a year ago when the Rebels’ season was nearly derailed.

Ole Miss scored the first touchdown of the game against unbeaten Georgia on Nov. 11 inside Sanford Stadium. The Rebels were 8-1 and a win would catapult them firmly into the CFP discussion.

Georgia outscored Ole Miss 52-10 the rest of the way. The Bulldogs went 5-for-8 on third downs. They gained 611 yards and averaged 10 yards per play. Ole Miss finished without a single defensive tackle for a loss.

“This really started in Athens, Georgia,” Kiffin said during the Early Signing Period last December. “I think you guys sensed my disappointment after that game in the way that I coached, but just some other things, and (I) said ‘Hey, we’re going to do everything in our power to change the way that we look as a team, but especially defensively.’ We might not be very good, but we’re going to look a lot better in our uniforms. A lot of that was signing players that were already significant players in the SEC.”

Kiffin said at an alumni event earlier this month he felt the defensive line group was the most improved position room, per the Clarion Ledger’s David Eckert.

Nolen was the third-ranked player in the portal this offseason according to 247Sports and a former five-star recruit. The 6-foot-4, 290-pounder offers elite athleticism with SEC experience (22 games, 66 tackles, 11 TFLs in 2 years).

Umanmielen was the second-ranked edge transfer this offseason according to 247Sports, and he comes in with 44 appearances for the Gators in 4 years. The 6-foot-5, 255-pounder was a second-team All-SEC selection last fall after recording 7 sacks in 12 games.

Hardie, a 6-foot-2, 270-pounder, was a first-team All-CUSA selection last year for Jacksonville State. Over the last 2 seasons, he produced 31.5 tackles for loss, 14 sacks, and 70 stops.

Jared Ivey and JJ Pegues are back. Perkins flashed last year.

Ole Miss was top 25 nationally in defensive havoc rate last season but ranked just 80th in defensive success rate on standard downs. That goes hand-in-hand with the run defense, which ranked 53rd in efficiency (4 yards per carry allowed). Can the additions to the defensive front help stiffen things up on early downs?

If Ole Miss can get teams to play behind the sticks a bit more, the talent and depth within the front seven could cause serious problems.

The offense, which averaged 35.1 points a game last year, doesn’t need much help. The loss of Quinshon Judkins hurts on paper, but it was mitigated in the portal and opened the door for Ulysses Bently IV to have a larger role. At a minimum, the offseason changes could be a wash in the backfield. And the wideouts got more dangerous with the additions of Juice Wells and Deion Smith.

In a perfect world, Ole Miss races out to early leads and then uses its newfound size on the defensive front to cause opponents fits. Pete Golding is exactly the kind of coordinator you trust to make all the pieces fit.

Does it?

Because this isn’t just about making a Playoff appearance. Can Ole Miss actually win a title once it gets to the CFP? FPI provides an interesting counter to some of the preseason human polls. The Rebels rank 16th in the preseason model, with a projected record of 7.9 wins and 4.2 losses. The model gives Ole Miss a 20.7% chance to make the CFP but only a 2.2% chance to make it to the title game.

The model is significantly lower on Ole Miss than sportsbooks. FanDuel’s price for Ole Miss to make the CFP carries an implied probability of 55.6%.

Kiffin has been painfully blunt about the Rebels’ shortcomings of late. They weren’t big enough last season, and they haven’t been big enough on the defensive side of the football to beat the elites. They’ve had plenty of talent, but they’re just 2-5 against Alabama, LSU, and Georgia over the last 3 seasons.

Have they bridged the gap on the field? Because it sure looks like they’ve made great progress on paper.

Verdict: Contender… for now

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Additional entries in the “Contender or Pretender” series: