Jonathan Nichols kicked a 54-yard field goal late that proved to be the winner. Another NFL quarterback, Jay Cutler, was leading the Commodores. Ole Miss Spirit's Jeff Roberson penned this column prior to the season opener in Nashville, Tenn. Ole Miss would win 10 games, finish 7-1 to win the SEC West (although a loss to LSU meant a co-championship and prevented the Rebels from playing in the SEC title game in Atlanta), and claim a Cotton Bowl victory in Dallas, Texas, against Oklahoma State.
"Eli's Last Season Already Has A Different Feel"
The story's been the same for so long. You know it – the dad, the brothers, the name, the legacy.
It's still a great story. Still being written in publications like Sports Illustrated or The Sporting News, the New York Times and the Washington Post. Talked about on ESPN almost daily.
Everybody has something to say about it. It's an attention magnet, no doubt.
So into Eli's fifth season at Ole Miss, those of us who cover the program up close look for a different angle. But it's hard to find.
Still we try.
After Eli announced early in the calendar year he was returning for another season, it all changed.
But not totally.
There would be another season of Heisman talk and hope of champions for Rebel followers.
Another season of those "extra" press conferences after Coach David Cutcliffe finishes his, because everybody wants to know what Eli has to say. So as summer moved into fall, I looked for that different angle.
I saw some of it emerge in Birmingham for SEC Media Kickoff. Eli just seemed different. More confident. Voice more audible. I had flashbacks to 1997, Peyton's last season at Tennessee when he met the press heading into his last year with so much self-assurance and poise. Even saw some of the Peyton mannerisms I really hadn't noticed from Eli in the past.
Not to be trite or silly, but Eli was a full-grown man sitting in front of the hundreds of reporters gathered.
It's the Eli we've seen this month as summer turned into football season.
Don't get me wrong. There's a lot about Eli that's still the same.
But this year is his last at Ole Miss, and that is foremost in his thoughts.
"I have a different mindset. I'm a senior and a captain now," he said. "It's my last season here. This is it. I'm confident. I know the offense. I have a better idea of what other teams are doing. I know when they're bluffing or when they're coming. And having a plan for whatever happens is important."
Not that he didn't have many of those characteristics the first four years.
But, like I said, all grown up now.
"He's been real consistent this camp," said Cutcliffe, talking more about his quarterbacking but just as easily could have been talking about his approach to the season. "He's taken the next step. He's had the August you would expect him to have."
Quarterbacks Coach Kurt Roper takes it a step further.
"His leadership is better than ever. He's more verbal out there now. His mindset is more focused on winning than ever. He's still true to his personality. But he's stepped up to lead even more."
And Roper knows all that maybe more than anybody. He and Eli have been in this every year, almost daily, together.
"He's kinda stepped out of that comfort zone to lead," Roper continued. "He's made a conscious effort at it. He wants this to be the season he and his teammates have worked for.
"And you can just see his development and the step he's taken. He comes over to the sideline to us and offers suggestions now. He will see something happening and tell us what he thinks we should do. That comes only with experience."
Eli says what we're seeing is truly there.
"I've played in a lot of games now," he said. "There's no substitute for experience. It's not like I've seen it all. Defenses still show us stuff."
Well, they have to try to do something to stop Eli and his offense. But he thinks this will be an even better year for the Rebel "O."
"I'm confident about that. Our offensive line is experienced. Our receivers are big-play guys. It's my job to get the ball to them. Our backs can make things happen if they get in the open field.
"We have to do what works. We believe we can run the ball better this year. But we'll do whatever needs to be done."
It all comes back to the mindset he and the other fourth and fifth-year seniors have heading into the 2003 season.
"We haven't accomplished what we want yet," said Archie's youngest son before his final season of Ole Miss football begins. "We've been through some mediocre seasons. We haven't been to that next level. We have the seniors and the players now to do that. We just gotta win. That's it."
And that's the final angle of a five-year story everyone wants.
By December, this one may have the storybook finish Eli and Ole Miss people everywhere have longed for.
No. 10 has made sure to do his part. I could see it in Birmingham more clearly than ever. And since.