October 23, 2009. I was Oxford-bound with my closest compatriots for what we expected would be a jolly excursion to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Arkansas was going to thrash Ole Miss, you see. We'd exact revenge upon the disgraced and largely reviled former coach and embarrass him in front of thousands of fans who had embraced the castoff as some kind of program savior.
My, how those visions soured. Perhaps predictably, Arkansas was downtrodden and flat after being infamously denied an upset in Gainesville the week before, partially by the Gators and partially by a Pop Warner-caliber officiating team. And, of course, Ole Miss came out of the locker room with uncanny vigor, unleashing Dexter McCluster as if he had been thawed in one of Senatobia's famous underground cryogenics labs. The Hogs were within 24-17 at the start of the fourth quarter before Ole Miss clamped down and finished off a 30-17 victory. That left Arkansas limping at 3-4 overall and 1-4 in the SEC; Ole Miss improved to 5-2 and 2-2 and the scent of Polo Sport and Pabst overwhelmed The Grove.
God, it was miserable.
But in retrospect, that mostly forgettable, unseasonably hot Saturday afternoon in nawth Mississipp' was satisfying. Maybe even cathartic. It probably represented the last time that Rebel fans lustily chanted "HOU-STON NUTT!!!" in their spartan stadium, and it probably was the lowest moment in the Bobby Petrino era for the Hog fans who filed out dejected that day.
Since that loss, Arkansas is 20-5 (officially 20-4, with Ohio State's ill-gotten Sugar Bowl win vacated) and all losses were to Top 10 foes. Ole Miss is 10-14 over the same span, losing twice to Vanderbilt by double-digit margins, twice to in-state rival Mississippi State, to Jacksonville State of the Football Championship Series, and most recently, by 45 points at home to a seemingly flawless Alabama team that could have exacted even greater punishment if it had forsaken its charitable approach in the fourth quarter.
The gulf between the schools' records over that period is considerable enough, but clearly, that only tells a fraction of the story of where these programs were, where they are now, and the respective climates surrounding them.
I needn't dissect the reasons why Houston Nutt's volatile decade here ended in November 2007, nor am I afforded the space to do so. In short, the public disgust for Nutt has not totally been reserved for his on-field product, which hits an occasional zenith before it plummets precipitously, but largely for his combative, petulant manner of defending what amounts to a very marginal ledger.
It was, thus, not shocking at all to hear Nutt give an impassioned non sequitur at the podium several months ago, wherein he took pains to remind Ole Miss fans that they shouldn't so quickly forget his back-to-back Cotton Bowl victories. This came after his team pretty much tanked in 2010 to the tune of a 4-8, 1-7 campaign. Clearly, he recognized that things were about to get even worse, because Ole Miss has slogged through the first half of its schedule and managed only two wins (Fresno State and FCS member Southern Illinois) while dropping its first three SEC games by an average of 27 points. Rebels fans are pounding out nasty missives online, flying banners over the stadium and calling for mass carnage in the athletic department. Same scene as we experienced here only a few years ago, except the leash was far shorter then. Ole Miss fans, loath as they may be to admit it now, knew they were mining fool's gold.
When measured statistically, the contrast is jarring. Tyler Wilson threw for more yards in 60 minutes against Texas A&M than any Ole Miss QB has managed over six games this year. While Ole Miss has managed only 27 combined points in three SEC games, Arkansas scored 28 in three quarters against Auburn. Rebels' senior tailbacks Brandon Bolden and Enrique Davis, at one time viewed as perhaps the best running back tandem in the conference, have amassed 131 rushing yards combined; Arkansas wide receiver Joe Adams has 136 yards on only seven carries. The Hogs have a single turnover the past two games, while Ole Miss has nine giveaways (and only three offensive touchdowns) in three conference contests.
All of that will have a net zero effect if the Rebels play inspired on another sunny Oxford morning. Arkansas fans hopefully no longer view this game as I did two years ago, as a means of appealing to our masochistic tastes, because it's an important, if apparently one-sided, piece of a greater puzzle. Beating Houston Nutt one more (one last?) time means almost nothing; winning a conference game, on the other hand, means everything.