Rebels begin quest to back up hype

Published 12:34 am Sunday, September 6, 2009

JACKSON (AP) — The Memphis Tigers hope an infusion of transfers will help them knock off No. 8 Mississippi when the two teams with high expectations meet on Sunday.

‘‘It’s a real big game for us,’’ said Memphis safety DeRon Furr. ‘‘We want to be like David and Goliath in this situation. That would help our confidence build. It would just go up out the roof. They’re No. 8 and we’re no. 80 in the nation — not even on the map.’’

High expectations have been building all summer for both teams.

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The Rebels finished their first season under coach Houston Nutt with a six-game winning streak, a Cotton Bowl victory and a lot of talent left to return.

The Tigers went to a bowl for the fifth time in six years, but that’s not enough. Coach Tommy West has brought in Furr and several other transfers he hopes can immediately lift the talent level at Memphis. He wants more — a Conference USA title, a spot in that poll, a place in the BCS buster discussion. And no more 17-point spreads.

West is fired up about the game in Memphis and the opportunity it provides. He knows he should be repeating the one-game-at-a-time mantra. But it’s hard to do.

‘‘I guess you’re supposed to say it would be one win, we’d be 1-0, it would be a good start,’’ West said. ‘‘But these kind of games are momentum type of games, I think. These are games that if you can win them, you can really kick yourself off in a good way.’’

The Rebels have won four in a row against the Tigers and expect to extend that streak. There will be tons of Ole Miss fans in the stands — Oxford and Memphis are about 70 minutes apart — so it won’t exactly be a road game.

Mississippi returns quarterback Jevan Snead, receiver/Wild Rebel captain Dexter McCluster and defensive end Greg Hardy, all of whom should contend for national awards this year.

Memphis, on the other hand, is definitely more talented and returns several pivotal pieces on offense — quarterback Arkelon Hall, running back Curtis Steele and receivers Duke Calhoun and Carlos Singleton, both of whom could set significant career records Sunday.

And the transfers come from programs like Miami, Wisconsin, LSU and other SEC teams.

The question going in, though, is can all these parts come together right away. West thinks so.

‘‘It’s like I tell our guys, we don’t have to be better than Ole Miss every day out of the year,’’ he said. ‘‘We have to be better than them one day. Out of 365, we have to be better than them one day. And we only have to be better than them three hours of that one day.’’

Nutt and the Rebels are not taking the Tigers lightly. They have heard the chatter from their critics, that they play big in big games and small in the little ones.

The Rebels loss of all-Americans Michael Oher and Peria Jerry and other contributing seniors, including the team’s leading tackler, Jamarca Sanford. The offensive line is suspect, the linebacking corps worth wondering about and the paper-thin secondary.

The Rebels have heard these questions for nine months now and have answered them with a confidence unthinkable a year ago when the team was coming off its fourth straight losing season. They say there be no letdowns and that they can’t sneak up on an opponent that is watching them closely.

They understand the importance of this game — just like the Tigers.

‘‘We have to show we’re not a fluke,’’ Ole Miss defensive end Kentrell Lockett said. ‘‘We have to show we can play to those standards that everyone has set forth. The first game is really going to be a gut check to see if we are a fluke or if we’re really what they say we are.’’