MEMPHIS — Ole Miss football coach Houston Nutt turned a lectern into a pulpit at his weekly Monday news conference, delivering an impassioned sermon aimed at squelching criticism of his 4-6 team coming off a 38-point loss to Tennessee, which has won one SEC game like the Rebels.
"I saw five players today, and three of them are down," said Nutt, whose team has to win its last two games, starting at No. 5 LSU on Saturday, to become bowl-eligible. "They hear the criticism walking to class, or that's all they hear on Facebook.
"I have 18- and 19-year-old players who believe everything they hear outside these walls. So I've got to turn that. I have to turn the negative around to positive inside these walls."
Nutt said he knew after his first two seasons of 9-4, crowned by Cotton Bowl wins over Texas Tech and Oklahoma State, respectively, that this year would be his toughest.
He didn't have any proven playmakers, especially at quarterback, which explained why he didn't mind taking the heat in accepting Oregon transfer Jeremiah Masoli. His offensive line was being rebuilt. There wasn't a lot of speed on defense, particularly in the secondary.
But Nutt also knew he was in a numbers crunch with a small senior class because of too many defections from previous Rebels coach Ed Orgeron's 2007 recruiting class and not enough players redshirted as freshmen in the '06 class.
The 2007 class had 24 signees, 18 of them from high school, five from junior colleges and Texas transfer Jevan Snead. Of the 18 signees, only six are on this year's team. There are also seven fifth-year seniors this season that Orgeron redshirted in the 2006 class, and Nutt has added a handful of four-year transfers.
While Nutt agreed that having a small senior class this season has been a detriment -- "Your seniors are the owners of the team, the motor that drives it and when they play their best is when you win the most games," he said -- he also wasn't blaming Orgeron, though Nutt implied that he and his staff improved the talent on hand.
"Ed Orgeron recruited good players," said Nutt, who is trying to avoid finishing last in the Western Division for just the second time (Arkansas in 2000) in his 13-year SEC head coaching career. "I appreciate all the players that I inherited. Go back to the first year I was here (2008), our senior class was phenomenal. (Offensive tackle) Michael Oher was a (NFL) first-rounder, playing his best ball, but he was about a sixth-rounder before we got here. (Defensive tackle) Peria Jerry was an awesome and violent player. (Wide receiver) Michael Wallace was playing at the top of his game, but he didn't have that many yards until we got here and got the ball to him."
Nutt was hoping for at least seven wins this season, but three knee surgeries (including All-SEC senior defensive Kentrell Lockett) and four concussions threw his season for a loop. It also didn't help that Ole Miss lost its opener, 49-48, in double overtime to Jacksonville State, an FCS (Division 1-AA) member.
Nevertheless, Nutt said his program has come a long way from the one he inherited from Orgeron, who was 3-21 in the SEC in three seasons, including 0-8 in '07.
"I remember the day we got here, I didn't see any life, I saw a lot of no hope," Nutt said. "That's what I'm feeling a bit now and I don't want that to come back on our guys now."
"I am excited about the future, I'm excited about the 12 freshmen we're playing. I know in my heart, now more than ever, that we can get to Atlanta (to play in the SEC championship game)."
Ole Miss vs. LSU
When, where: 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Tiger Stadium, Baton Rouge, La.
TV, radio: WREG (3); WHBQ-AM (560)
-- Ron Higgins: 901-529-2525