OUT WITH THE OLD ... 

For Ole Miss fans, what was supposed to be a "goodbye" turned out to be a "hello."

They went to Nashville to say farewell and thanks to their all-time leading rusher, passer, and receiver. But none of those guys were even visible on a field that for most of the night had nothing but West Virginia receivers running around on it. The Mountaineers, of course, were saying their own goodbyes, sending 21-year head coach Don Nehlen out to pasture with a 49-point group-hug. But to shivering, embarrassed Rebel fans, the 2000 Music City Bowl won’t be remembered as Deuce’s Last Game so much as Eli’s First. Rebel fans, like any other, are a fickle lot, prone to savior complexes, and a quarterback named Eli Manning (brother of Peyton, son of Archie) is what they’ve all been dreaming of. So among the shivering, embarrassed Ole Miss people in Nashville Thursday night, there must have been more than a few heads filled with ‘what it could have been’ and ‘what it will be.’ ‘What it is’ was pretty bad -- as bad a bowl-game whipping as you’re ever likely to see. Before Ole Miss got into the end zone for the first time, West Virginia had hit eight of their nine passes for 226 yards, scored six touchdowns on their first seven possessions, hit six plays of 30 yards or more, and run back a kickoff, untouched, 99 yards. It was quite literally as if Ole Miss had missed the bus. At this point, many of the 17,000 Rebel fans in attendance on a 26-degree night had gone off looking for a heater and a new defensive coordinator. But all of those 17,000, and then some, will one day claim that they stuck it out and saw the beginning of the Eli Era. With the score 49-16 after three quarters, the much-talked-about freshman, youngest son of Archie and the one ‘they’ say ‘might be’ better than Peyton, trotted onto the field for some cleanup duty. Obviously, the argument could be made that with the game over, such duty is irrelevant. But the Mountaineer defense was still out there, and they knew perfectly well Manning would be throwing on every down. Still, he stood tall in the pocket, and he rolled out with precision, and he started throwing darts: 23 yards to Jamie Armstrong (a junior), and it’s 49-23. Isn’t that nice, the kid’s first TD pass. Then 18 yards to Omar Rayford, another junior. Hmmm -- 49-30. Then an on side kick, caught on the fly, and a fourth-down, 16-yard pass to Toward Sanford, a sophomore. Then a roll out pass for the two-point conversion. It’s 49-38! The Rebel D makes a stop, and here we go again. Could this be? No. This time, with a man behind the secondary, Manning gets hit as he throws, and it’s picked off. Game over, hats off to Nehlen, see ya’ next year, let’s go get warm. If there’s a down side to last night’s fourth quarter, it is that the Eli Fever will only get worse. Despite the fact that departing senior Romaro Miller set just about every passing record on the books, a lot of Rebel fans thought Manning should have been playing all along. There will now be a lot of ‘I told you so’s’ on the internet and radio. There will also be a lot of people expecting Manning to do the same thing for the next three years that he did in a game that was over when he entered it. That’s a lot to hang on a 19-year-old kid, that whole savior thing. But he must have known that’s what he was getting into when he brought that last name to Oxford. And if the Music City Bowl was any indication, he seems to have the skills to deal with it. So Ole Miss got thrashed on national TV, and Deuce Macallister’s last game before making a billion dollars in the NFL was spent looking at gangs of unblocked defenders. But for the fans, it was a nice thing to hope and dream, which some of them got do, for a while, on an otherwise cold night in Nashville.

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