HOOVER, Ala. — Most of the Southeastern Conference Media Days hoopla went in one of two directions: either toward the nation's most high-profile player/coach combo (Tim Tebow and Urban Meyer of Florida) or toward Alabama Coach Nick Saban, whose mere presence brought an avalanche of Crimson Tide supporters to the lobby of the Wynfrey Hotel.
In the background, however, were two other pretty good stories: the Mississippi tandem of Coach Houston Nutt and quarterback Jevan Snead.
Nutt doesn't enjoy the national acclaim of Meyer and Saban, but his résumé isn't too shabby. He led Arkansas to at least a share of the Western Division crown three times and took the Hogs to eight bowls in 10 years. He's looked upon as one of the early innovators of the now en vogue "Wildcat" offense.
But perhaps the biggest feather in his cap came last year, when he took over a Mississippi program that was 10-25 the previous three seasons and led it to a 9-4 campaign. The Rebels' five conference wins were two more than they had over Ed Orgeron's final three seasons.
Now with a talented roster led by Snead, the Rebels have cropped up in many pre-season top-10 polls and are viewed as a threat to Alabama and LSU in the West.
Nutt said the high expectations aren't unwelcome.
"Last year, the same group of experts picked us toward the bottom," Nutt said. "We had the attitude that we're fixing to go hunt, we're going to go compete and try to win this game when nobody gives us a chance. Right now we're the hunted a little bit. You can ask Urban Meyer and Nick Saban. The great teams expect to be picked No. 1. That's kind of where we want to get to. It's an awesome statement."
Snead also doesn't have the hardware of Tebow, and was pressing early in the year trying to make big plays after sitting out the mandatory transfer season. But the University of Texas transfer started to come on in a 31-30 win over Tebow, Meyer and the Gators in the Swamp last fall. It was the only blemish on Florida's national title season.
"That really set the tone for everything," Snead said. "After that, we had confidence that we could beat any team in the country, and we're carrying that over to this year."
Snead finished the year with 2,762 passing yards and 26 touchdowns, and Nutt thinks Snead's 2009 will be even bigger.
"I really expect him to be much, much better," Nutt said. "You could see the last half of the year how much better Jevan got for us. Any time you lay out a year, then you go into the fastest conference in America, things are going to be moving very, very fast, too fast.
"As a strong-arm quarterback, you feel like you can get the ball to anybody at any time. Not true. It takes time."
Nutt did lose a couple of first-round NFL Draft picks in offensive lineman Michael Oher and defensive tackle Jeria Perry, but the cupboard is still stocked with leftover talent from the Orgeron era. The Rebels' top five rushers and seven of their top eight pass-catchers are returning. Defensively, end Greg Hardy is already high on NFL Draft boards for 2010, and talented tackle Jerrell Powe has gone from 383 pounds this time a year ago to 320.
To top things off, Nutt, his coaching staff and players will be the focus of a reality show, Gridiron U., with filming set to begin during fall camp. Some would look at that as a risky move in a year with high expectations, but Nutt believes his squad can handle it.
"I want the cameras on 'em," Nutt said. "I want them to get used to it. I want them not to flinch. I want them to not draw attention to themselves. Hey, look at me. You don't have to do that. If you're playing hard, making plays, you'll get enough attention."
If things work out the way everyone at Ole Miss is hoping, Nutt might just be the center of attention at SEC Media Days next year.