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Home field advantage holds key

By By Tony Krausz / assistant sports editor
Aug. 5, 2003
OXFORD Members of the Ole Miss football team will not be trading in their helmets and pads for a realtor's gold blazer, but the team is repeating real estate's top three rules: Location, location, location.
The Rebels, who notched their sixth consecutive seven-win season last year, may open the 2003 campaign with back-to-back road games, but the final 10 contests have the team right where it wants to be.
"We play our first two games on the road and that will be difficult, but seven of our final 10 games will be at home," said Ole Miss head football coach David Cutcliffe Monday during the team's media day. "That's a positive way to look at it."
Ole Miss, which was picked to finish fifth in the West at the SEC media days, will also be unveiling some personal new real estate this season at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
Astroplay synthetic grass was laid down as the stadium's new playing surface over the summer. The new surface is also being used as the floor of the team's indoor facility.
"I like the turf," said Ole Miss quarterback Eli Manning. "At first, I was a little worried about it because it was soft, and the receivers and backs were slipping on their out-routes and cuts. It just took some time for the turf to settle and the rain has helped it some. We've worked out on it, and it has gotten better everyday. It will be perfect once the season starts."
But before the Rebels can officially usher in the new playing surface era, the squad will have two tough road games.
Ole Miss begins the season with a Southeastern Conference opponent for the first time since it opened the 1995 campaign at Auburn, a 46-13 loss.
The Rebels travel to Nashville, Tenn., to take on Vanderbilt at 11:30 a.m. on Aug. 30.
Despite the Commodores' 2-10 record from last season, Ole Miss will not be overlooking the team it has only beaten by a combined 18 points over the last two seasons.
"We have to come in more prepared than in the past for a season-opening game," said Rebels wide receiver Chris Collins. "Vanderbilt has played us close the last two years. They will beat you, if you overlook them."
After Vanderbilt, Ole Miss stays in the state of Tennessee to take on Memphis at 11 a.m. on Sept. 6.
Cutcliffe may be able to look down the schedule for a bright side of playing the first two games on the road, but the fifth-year Rebels' head coach is concerned about the affect the bright sun will have on his team so early in the year.
"Strength and conditioning will be an issue," Cutcliffe said. "We all know that television is going to dictate what we do, and thank goodness television is here for us, and it's been a great medium for us in college football. But playing those games at 11 and 11:30 a.m. are going to be challenges, and ones we'll have to be ready for. "
Ole Miss returns home on Sept. 13 to start a two-game home stand, beginning with Louisiana-Monroe and ending with Texas Tech (Sept. 27).
After a trip to the Swamp in Florida on Oct. 4, the Rebels will set up camp at home for a four-game stretch at Vaught-Hemingway.
Playing in the friendly confines of home may help the squad reverse its trend of late-season struggles.
"It will be a great advantage for our team playing at home in front of our fans." Collins said. "We are going to show other teams how hard it is to win in our house."
Ole Miss swooned last season as the team went on the road for four of its last six regular season games.
The Rebels lost five straight in that span in which Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn and Georgia tallied 1,561 yards and scored 152 points.
The team knows it will take more than games being located in its own stadium to prevent an end-of-year losing streak.
Rebels defensive tackle Jesse Mitchell said opponents will be facing a deeper team this year.
"We have a lot of young players who have stepped up and given us depth," Mitchell said. "We will have people coming in and the talent level will not drop off."
Ole Miss will hold its first intrasquad scrimmage on Aug. 13, and the team can begin two-a-day practices on Saturday.