The opponent: The University of Mississippi RebelLandBearAckbarSharks
Date: October 8, 2022
Last year: 10-3 (6-2 SEC) Somehow they didn’t feel like a 10-win team, arguably because they won seven games as of October and none of them by more than two touchdowns and so on contains a game against Vanderbilt. They were also drilled by Bama and also messed up a trip to Auburn.
Series record: Ole Miss leads, 54-36-2. This is honestly not as one-sided as most of Vanderbilt’s annual opponents, and in fact Vanderbilt won six out of eight from 2005 to 2012. Since 2013, however, the Rebels have won seven out of nine.
Last time we saw these guys: Vanderbilt went to Oxford on November 20th last year and… things just didn’t work out to bad? Vanderbilt lost 31-17 in one of those old-school Bobby Johnson games that never felt like the Commodores were going to do to win against a top 10 opponent on the road, but they didn’t embarrass themselves either, and at the end of a 2-10 season it was hard to feel bad about it.
Lane Kiffin, professional internet meme, the guy who once spurned Tennessee after a single season to go to USC, then got fired on the tarmac after a 3-2 start in 2013 — and then his career as the offensive coordinator of Nick Saban had a solid 27-13 run at Florida Atlantic and is now 15-8 in two years at Ole Miss. Oh, yeah, and his sophomore season saw ten wins and a Sugar Bowl berth. And then he raged in the transfer portal.
At least the offensive line is stable! Gone, however, are the starting quarterback (Matt Corral), top four rushers (Jerrion Ealy, Snoop Conner, Corral, and Henry Parrish), and top three receivers (Dontario Drummond, Jahcour Pearson, and Braylon Sanders). However, three or four starters are returning to the offensive, which should at least give the Rebels some stability as they work their way through all of the portal acquisitions.
That starts at quarterback, where USC transfer Jaxson Dart, who completed 61.9 percent of his passes for 1,353 yards for 9 touchdowns and 5 interceptions as a true freshman, will likely claim the job ahead of last year’s backup Luke Altmyer. (As usual, one can interpret this situation to mean that if Lane Kiffin was sure of Altmyer, he probably wouldn’t have walked out and gotten a top quarterback from the portal.) On the running back, it’s former five-star Zach Evans , who rushed for 1,063 yards and 9 touchdowns in two seasons at TCU, and Ulysses Bentley of SMU, who rushed for 1,559 yards and 15 touchdowns in three seasons. Receiver will be less dependent on transfers with Jonathan Mingo and Dannis Jackson, but the Rebels have a trio of big transfers in Malik Heath (Mississippi State), Jaylon Robinson (UCF) and Jordan Watkins (Louisville).
There’s obviously a lot of talent here, and the running back and receiver replacements are likely a wash — so the big question on offense is whether Kiffin can get a similar performance out of Dart as he can out of Corral. That’s a big demand, of course, but even getting 80 percent of the production will put another 10-win season on the table.
For better or worse, the Ole Miss defense is more of a household name heading into 2022 — some big players (including starting two linebackers Chance Campbell and Mark Robinson and chaos-causing defensive end Sam Williams) are gone, but this defensive backfield returns more or less intact.
The Ole Miss defense went from a disaster area in 2020 to a near-strong strength by the end of 2021. After being blown up by Alabama for 42 points and by Arkansas for 51 (the latter was kind of a win), the Die Defense gave up just 20.8 ppg in the last eight games of the season. The Rebels went from 5.3 yards per rush to 4.5 in 2021 — very well. They also allowed 230 yards through the air per game – quite good in modern football.
That said, this is a defense relatively devoid of standouts — and Ole Miss also saw co-defensive coordinator DJ Durkin depart in the offseason. Ole Miss needs to find some pieces up front. Is Three-Time All-MAC Pick Troy Brown Ready for the SEC?
A great unknown. Ole Miss will have a new kicker and punter this year – the former because Caden Costa was suspended for testing positive for a banned substance, the latter because punter Mac Brown graduated. Jonathan Cruz from Charlotte is a presumed one-year fix at kicker. Punter I’m guessing it’s the Aussie Fraser Masin, the only punter I see on the list.
The second leg, played last year by Jerrion Ealy (kickoffs) and Dontario Drummond (punts), is also in the air.
For this year at least, Ole Miss is acting as a test case for the feasibility of relying almost entirely on the transfer portal to plug holes. The offense is almost completely new and will in all likelihood be almost completely occupied by players that Lane Kiffin pulled from the transfer portal. The level here is actually a bit staggering – either Kiffin didn’t have faith in any of the players who were already in the program, or this is by design and the long-term goal is short-term fixes. The defense sees less turnover, but also probably isn’t good enough to carry the team when there’s a significant drop on offense.
This means there is a lot of volatility here. Aside from Alabama, who visits Oxford in November, Ole Miss likely doesn’t have a game scheduled they can’t win (they draw Kentucky at home as their rotating East opponent, and a trip to Georgia Tech is their only non-conference). Notable game.) Traveling to the trifecta of LSU, Texas A&M and Arkansas won’t be easy, and while I probably think they’ll be favored at home over Kentucky, Auburn and Mississippi State, none of them are there. Anything between 6-6 and 10-2 is realistic; I’d probably split the difference and say 8-4.