Lane Kiffin’s tenure in Oxford begins on Saturday, as Ole Miss hosts Florida in the opening weekend of college football games in the SEC for the 2020 season. The Gators are projected by some to win the East Division this fall, and a win over the Rebels would be a good way for coach Dan Mullen’s team to start fulfilling preseason expectations. On the other side, Ole Miss finished 4-8 last fall and is transitioning to a new staff amidst a very unusual offseason. While there’s a lot of change in Oxford, Kiffin’s background on offense, along with some of the returning pieces on that side of the ball, should make for an interesting combination in 2020.
Dan Mullen is off to a 21-5 start in his first two years at Florida. But there’s one giant hurdle to cross in 2020. The Gators have finished or in a tie by conference record for second in the East in each of the last two seasons. Additionally, Florida lost to Georgia 36-17 in 2018 and fell 24-17 last fall. The Bulldogs have recruited better than the Gators in recent years, but with the turnover on offense at Georgia, along with an experienced two-deep in Gainesville, Mullen hopes to put Florida over the top and win the East in 2020. Saturday’s game against Ole Miss and next week’s home date versus South Carolina are good opportunities to work out the kinks on both sides of the ball before showdowns against Texas A&M and LSU in October.
While Florida is chasing an SEC East title and another New Year’s Six bowl, Ole Miss hopes to begin the process of a turnaround in 2020. The Rebels are just 15-21 over the last three years and have posted back-to-back losing records. Kiffin is one of the offseason’s top hires and inherits an offense with the potential to break out. However, the defense is a bigger concern and may not be fixed in 2020. Getting to a bowl game would be a good first step for the new coach in Oxford.
Ole Miss holds a 12-11-1 series edge over Florida. The Gators won the last meeting in 2015 (38-10), while the Rebels won in ’08. These two teams have played just five times since 2000. Ole Miss holds a 3-2 edge in that span.
Florida at Ole Miss
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 26 at Noon ET
Spread: Florida -14
When Florida Has the Ball
Florida has averaged more than 30 points a game in back-to-back seasons under Mullen’s direction and should have one of the best offenses in the SEC again this fall. This unit finished third in the conference by averaging 33.2 points a contest and 6.5 yards per snap in 2019. In order for this unit to take the next step, Mullen needs quarterback Kyle Trask to continue his progression, and better play has to come up front after the line struggled last season. With three starters back, along with the addition of Mississippi State transfer Stewart Reese, there’s optimism for this unit to improve in 2020.
Trask was placed into a difficult spot last year, taking over the job in Florida’s 29-21 comeback victory against Kentucky after starter Feleipe Franks was lost earlier in the game to what turned out to be a season-ending injury. Trask quickly emerged as one of the top passers in the SEC. He connected on 66.9 percent of his throws for 2,941 yards and 25 touchdowns to seven picks. Trask threw for at least 300 yards in three out of Florida’s last four games and finished fifth in the SEC with 17 completions of 30 or more yards. Backup Emory Jones has been an effective change-of-pace option as a runner and could see time on Saturday.
Despite losing last season’s leading rusher (Lamical Perine) and three out of the team’s top five wide receivers, Florida’s offense is in good shape at the skill positions. Tight end Kyle Pitts caught 54 balls for 649 yards in 2019 and ranks among the best in college football at his position. Look for Trevon Grimes (33 catches), Jacob Copeland (21), Kadarius Toney, and Penn State transfer Justin Shorter to emerge as the top weapons on the outside. Dameon Pierce and Malik Davis top the depth chart at running back, but Miami transfer Lorenzo Lingard will also see snaps.
Ole Miss gave up 6.3 yards per play and 36.2 points a game in 2018 but showed some improvement on this side of the ball in ’19. Over 12 games, the Rebels allowed 26.5 points a contest and held opponents to 5.8 a snap. Building off that improvement might be tough in ’20. There’s a new co-coordinator tandem calling the shots (DJ Durkin and Chris Partridge), and six starters are back. However, the line is thin, and concern remains in the secondary after giving up 14 plays of 40 yards or more last fall.
When Ole Miss Has the Ball
All eyes will be on the quarterback position when Ole Miss takes the field on Saturday. Will the Rebels turn to Matt Corral or John Rhys Plumlee to take the first snap? Both quarterbacks are talented and appear capable of directing the offense at a high level. Plumlee showcased his explosive running ability by recording 1,023 yards and 12 rushing scores last fall. However, Plumlee’s passing (52.7 percent) is still a work in progress. Corral (59 percent) is a better passer but doesn’t offer the same explosiveness on the ground. Corral seems likely to start on Saturday. However, Kiffin and coordinator Jeff Lebby could deploy both quarterbacks against a tough Florida defense.
Skill talent isn’t the problem for Kiffin and the Ole Miss offense. Running back Jerrion Ealy ran for 722 yards and caught 20 passes last fall and is one of the SEC’s top rising stars for 2020. He will have help in the backfield from Snoop Conner (512 yards). The receiving corps should rank among the best in the SEC. Elijah Moore is back as the No. 1 target after catching 67 passes for 850 yards and six scores last fall. There’s a handful of talented receivers poised to step up in 2020, including Braylon Sanders, Jonathan Mingo, Dontario Drummond, and Demarcus Gregory. Temple transfer Kenny Yeboah is slated to start at tight end.
While the Rebels have enough skill talent and quarterback depth to make this one interesting, the offensive line opens the year as a concern. Projected starting center Eli Johnson opted to transfer, which shifted starting guard Ben Brown to the middle. Ole Miss will lean on a pair of freshmen – Jeremy James and Reese McIntyre – to fill the void at guard, with Nick Broeker and Royce Newman at tackle. The Rebels allowed only 21 sacks last year, but the offseason shuffling may make it difficult for this group to match that total in 2020.
Florida returns five starters off a defense that held teams to 15.5 points a game and ranked second in the SEC against the run last fall. Additionally, coordinator Todd Grantham’s group limited offenses to 4.9 yards a play and led the SEC by registering 49 sacks over 13 games. Grantham has a few holes to fill at every level, but a strong foundation remains in place. Georgia transfer Brenton Cox is a key addition off the edge, with the secondary poised to rank among the best in the conference thanks to the return of cornerbacks Marco Wilson and Kaiir Elam.
Four of the last five meetings between these two teams have been decided by six points or less. Considering the unusual offseason and transition at Ole Miss, a close or slow start by both teams wouldn’t be a surprise. However, the Gators have too much firepower on offense against a suspect Ole Miss defense to be held in check for four quarters. Offensively, the Rebels have the skill talent and quarterbacks to move the ball, but the line has to prove it can hold up against Florida’s defensive front. This one is close for a half, but the Gators pull away over the final two quarters.
Prediction: Florida 34, Ole Miss 20
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