IT WAS a sultrySaturday evening in the heart of Mississippi, and Houston Nutt, still stickyfrom the Gatorade bath he had received in the waning seconds of his team's31--30 win over No. 4 Florida, stepped out of an airplane at Tupelo RegionalAirport and into the night. The first-year Mississippi coach looked up, and onthe other side of a nearby fence was a cheering throng of 500 rhapsodic Rebelsfans. Then Nutt looked at his players. "They were just standing there,"says Nutt, whose team, a three-touchdown underdog to the Gators, returned fromGainesville having toppled a top five team for the first time in three decades."I had to tell them, 'Guess what? They're here for you. It's O.K. to goover there and say hello.' Apparently they're not used to this kind ofattention. They looked like they were in a daze."
This is an article from the Oct. 6, 2008 issue
The collegefootball universe was in much the same state. The Stunner in the Swamp turnedout to be the biggest upset last Saturday, but the madness didn't end there.After greeting another 400 fans at the Rebels' practice facility when he andhis team arrived on campus later that night, Nutt finally returned home to his150-acre ranch outside of Oxford around eight o'clock and flipped on the livingroom television to watch No. 8 Alabama against No. 3 Georgia. He nearly fellout of his chair when he saw the score: Alabama 31, Georgia 0. At halftime."It was a pretty wild day in college football, huh?" Nutt said onSunday.
You think? Duringa 48-hour period that started last Thursday night, nine ranked teams lost, sixto unranked squads. Three of the country's top four schools went down,including No. 1 USC (page 35) from the Pac-10. The top-ranked teams from threeother BCS conferences—the SEC (Georgia), the Big Ten (Wisconsin) and the ACC(Wake Forest)—also fell. While there has been no paradigm-shifting upset on thescale of Appalachian State over Michigan, this season is proving to be just asunpredictable as 2007 was. "What we've seen in the first month of theseason isn't an aberration," says BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall, whoseCougars moved up three spots to No. 8 in the AP poll—on a bye week. "Whatwe're seeing is a leveling of the field."
The result is avolatile environment in which a school can go from being a borderline Top 25team to the second-ranked program in the nation in five weeks—as Alabama,ranked No. 24 in the preseason, has done in coach Nick Saban's second year.Following his team's win in Athens, where the Crimson Tide steamrollered No. 3Georgia 41--30, Alabama (5--0) suddenly looks like a national title contender.That Saban's crew pulled off the road win wasn't as surprising as how easilythe Crimson Tide dismantled the Bulldogs. With quarterback John Parker Wilson(10 of 11 passes for 139 yards and a touchdown in the first half) operatingbehind an overpowering line, Alabama, which has yet to trail in a game and hasoutscored opponents 74--0 in the opening quarter, scored on each of its firstfive possessions. By halftime the Tide had turned the much-ballyhooed rumblebetween SEC rivals into a funeral for the nation's preseason No. 1 and itsfans. At least the Dawgs dressed for the occasion. Georgia broke out its rarelyworn black jerseys, and the Bulldogs faithful donned black as well.
In the CrimsonTide locker room, moments after the biggest win in his 18-game tenure inTuscaloosa, Saban began his postgame address with a saliva-spewing rant aboutall the things his players did wrong in a sloppy second half. (Though Alabamawas outscored 30--10 after intermission, a Crimson Tide victory was never indoubt.) After making it through his checklist, the 56-year-old grump paused,then smiled. The room exploded in giddy laughter.
THERE WASN'T abigger winner on Saturday than the embattled Ole Miss football program, whichcame into the game with nine consecutive SEC defeats. This fall the scrutiny ofthe Rebels has been intense, and not just because of the new $6 million,4,032-square-foot high-definition scoreboard (touted as having the largest HDdisplay in the SEC) that now towers over the north end zone at Vaught-HemingwayStadium. Even though the Rebels had floundered through four straight losingseasons, including a 3--9 mark last year, and even though their sophomorequarterback, Jevan Snead, had thrown only 49 college passes before the '08season, expectations were high for a once proud school reenergized by thehiring of Nutt last November. "The moment it hit me how passionate the fansare here was the day I held my first press conference," says the50-year-old Nutt, who, despite a 75--48 record at Arkansas, resigned last yearafter 10 tumultuous seasons in Fayetteville. "I was expecting to speak to afew reporters in a room with five cameras. But I find myself walking into theFord Center, where there are 1,500 people packed in, and I later find out that500 to 600 people were turned away at the door and waiting outside. I had goosebumps."
The Rebels headedto Gainesville with a 2--2 record—their pair of losses (at No. 20 Wake Foreston Sept. 6 and to Vanderbilt on Sept. 20) by a combined eight points. Sneadcould not have looked worse in the Vanderbilt defeat, tossing fourinterceptions as Ole Miss lost 23--17. In more ways than one the game againstFlorida presented an opportunity for redemption for the quarterback. When hestepped onto the field at high noon, he stood in a place where he once thoughthe'd become a star. In 2005 he had committed to Florida out of Stephenville(Texas) High, but then he found out that the Gators were heavily recruitinganother high school All-America—a gunslinger from Jacksonville named Tim Tebow.Snead backed out of his commitment and signed with Texas. But redshirt freshmanColt McCoy beat him out for the starting job in 2006, so at the end of thatseason Snead transferred to Mississippi.
Now here wasSnead, facing Tebow in front of 90,106 fans—and it was the unheraldedinterloper who was the poised playmaker and the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner whoappeared flustered. His team down 17--10 in the third quarter and facing athird-and-10 deep in Florida territory, Snead dumped a screen pass to runningback Cordera Eason that went for an 18-yard touchdown. Then, with 5:26 left andthe game tied at 24, Snead connected with a wide-open Shay Hodge on an 86-yardpass play that gave the Rebels the lead for good. "The corner fell off, andI knew I was going to be open, but I didn't expect the safety to miss it thatbad," says Hodge. "I didn't think I was going to take it all theway."
Tebow, meanwhile,continued his disappointing encore to his Heisman season with another unevenperformance. The junior quarterback fumbled once (the third-quarter turnoverled to Eason's touchdown), missed open receivers and often held on to the balltoo long as a ferocious Rebels pass rush sacked him three times. He did respondwith a six-play, 68-yard touchdown drive that pulled the Gators to 31--30 with3:28 left, but the Rebels' Kentrell Lockett broke through the line to block theextra point. Then, on fourth-and-one at the Ole Miss 32 with 41 seconds left,Tebow was stopped for no gain as he tried to run off right tackle out of theshotgun. "You have never seen any player in the entire country play as hardas I will play the rest of this season," an emotional Tebow said after thegame. "And you'll never see someone push the rest of the team as hard as Iwill push everybody the rest of this season."
Though theytumbled to No. 12 in the rankings, the Gators are hardly out of the nationaltitle picture in what is shaping up as another crazy season. But Florida fanscan't like the team's chances to run the table (three games against top 20teams remain on the schedule) with coach Urban Meyer's offense looking as outof sync as it did against the Rebels. Though Percy Harvin, a wideout whooccasionally lines up in the backfield, rushed for 82 yards, the Gators stillaren't getting any production out of their running backs. And Tebow was limitedto seven yards on 15 carries.
Meanwhile, OleMiss looks poised to take off. Less than 24 hours after his Gatorade bath, thecoach of the resurgent Rebels was back in his office, meeting with hisassistants to prep for this Saturday's game against South Carolina. Nutt's teamshowed last Saturday that it's good enough to make noise in the SEC West. Anintradivision showdown with Alabama looms on Oct. 18, but the coach wasn'tlooking ahead. "One week at a time," Nutt said. "If we've learnedanything about college football this weekend, it's that, week to week, all youcan hope to do is survive."
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On Sunday, Oklahoma became the third team to hold theNo. 1 spot in the AP Top 25 since the preseason rankings were released on Aug.16. The Sooners are the only top five team left from the first poll.
2. OHIO STATE