A three-loss season at Ole Miss would be cause for celebration in most years. But this isn't most years.
The Rebels were a top-10 pick nationally and grouped with the likes of LSU and Alabama in the SEC West. That's heady stuff for a program that has never made the SEC championship game.
But the season hasn't matched the preseason. And that's not just unfortunate for Ole Miss, which is 6-3 overall but already has lost three conference games. It's also unfortunate for UT, which plays in Oxford on Saturday.
You have to know coach Houston Nutt's track record at Arkansas to appreciate that.
Nutt's teams usually are at their best when less is expected. For example, take UT's 1999 trip to Fayetteville, where one of its most talented teams was upended by the Razorbacks, who just a week earlier had lost to Ole Miss by 22 points.
Better to play Nutt's teams after great triumphs than disasters. The guy knows how to rally the troops. Ole Miss fans discovered as much last season, Nutt's first in Oxford.
The 2008 Rebels started out 3-4, with road trips to Arkansas and LSU still ahead. What came next was dramatic even by Nutt's standards. Ole Miss won its last five regular-season games, including the last three by a combined margin of 135-13.
Its Cotton Bowl performance reflected its regular season. After falling behind favored Texas Tech 14-0, the Rebels rolled to a 47-34 victory.
The finish fostered rare expectations for an Ole Miss team without a Manning at quarterback. Nutt's team didn't play up to them.
South Carolina was the first beneficiary. It caught the Rebels at just the right time - when they were unbeaten and ranked in the top five, though you would have never guessed it the way they sputtered against the Gamecocks in a 16-10 loss.
Auburn caught Ole Miss at the right time, too. The Rebels had won back-to-back games and seemingly righted an unsteady offense after being throttled by Alabama. So naturally, they got upset by an Auburn team that had lost three consecutive games.
Now, the top 10 is a fantasy, as is the SEC West title. Yet Nutt's team might be more dangerous than ever, particularly since the Vols have won three of their last four games and are challenging for a Jan. 1 bowl bid.
This match-up would have been more promising for the Vols if the Rebels were a week removed from a loss to Auburn, and all their grand possibilities were still in play.
Another concern for UT this Saturday can be summed up in two words: "big plays."
Ole Miss' offense has looked docile at times and incompetent at others. But it has stunning capabilities.
Just kick the ball to freshman Jesse Grandy. Or give Dexter McCluster too much space. Or spot Shay Hodge a step in your secondary. Or allow Jevan Snead too much time to throw.
Grandy, a freshman, ranks second in the SEC in kickoff returns. He has returned two kicks for touchdowns and is averaging 30 yards a return.
McCluster is a greater threat because he gets the ball more, a strategy that Ole Miss didn't employ until the South Carolina game had slipped away. McCluster has rushed for 473 yards and caught 27 passes for 352 yards. He had 309 of those rushing yards against Arkansas and Auburn, which tells you how Ole Miss' offense is leaning.
Hodge is averaging 16.3 yards on 45 pass receptions. He has 20 touchdowns in the last three seasons.
Snead, who was projected as a high first-round draft choice before the season, has struggled terribly behind a shaky offensive line. His struggles haven't obscured his talent. On any given play, he still can beat you with a deep pass. He's also one of the fastest quarterbacks UT has faced, although he usually stays in the pocket.
But the greater threat is Nutt's track record. His teams know how to spoil success - whether it's their own or somebody else's.
Sports editor John Adams may be reached at 865-342-6284 or firstname.lastname@example.org.