Ole Miss Rebelsfans have waited six long college football seasons for a good reason to be excited about their program, and 2021 looks like the year for a mass return to the stands. The last time Mississippi put fear into the hearts of SEC teams was the two-year 2014-15 stretch under former head coach Hugh Freeze. The excitement reached a pinnacle in 2015 with a 10-3 record, and now Lane Kiffin is stoking the fires of enthusiasm in Oxford.
In one season, Kiffin nearly matched three seasons on the SEC sidelines with Matt Luke. Going through a 10-game SEC-only schedule, Kiffin produced a 4-5 regular season record after Luke compiled a 6-18 conference mark from 2017-19. In one area, Kiffin has already outperformed his predecessor — and that is winning a bowl game. An unranked Rebels team rolled down to Tampa scoring one of the bigger upsets in the postseason knocking off then-No. 11 Indiana 26-20 in the Outback Bowl.
Beyond the wins, Kiffin's offense was seemingly unstoppable. Finishing behind two Heisman Trophy finalists, quarterback Matt Corral was third in the SEC in passing yards (3,337) and touchdowns tossed (29) but was second in completion rate (70.9 percent). With Mac Jones (Alabama) and Kyle Trask (Florida) headed to the NFL, Corral becomes the conference's top performer.
In one up-and-down offseason to install his offense, Kiffin's group was third in the SEC in scoring at 39.2 per game. With a little help from a downtrodden defense, the Rebels could supplant Texas A&M as the challenger to Alabama in the SEC West.
1. Matt Corral
When Mississippi's redshirt junior quarterback is on, he can spin it as well as anyone in the country. Seven times he went for 300 yards or more, with 412 yards against Vanderbilt and 513 passing versus South Carolina, and he led the FBS in total offense per game (384.3). Adding to his treachery against defenses is his dual-threat abilities. Corral also ran for 506 yards with four more scores.
The teachable moments during the season will be applied again in spring ball, and that is avoiding throwing interceptions. One could argue the Rebels could have added three more wins to the schedule had Corral limited his picks against Arkansas, Auburn, and LSU.
2. Experience returning on defense
Fire up the joke machines... but experience does count for something in the SEC, even if the returning talent was part of the worst defense in the SEC during the 2020 season. The Rebels' defense was knocked for 38.3 points per game but might that change with a full spring under coordinator Jeff Lebby?
There is a long list of seniors returning to the team for one more run, among them includes Georgia defensive back transfer Otis Reese, corner Jaylon Jones, edge rusher Sam Williams, and defensive lineman Tariqious Tisdale. The linebacker corps has the potential to make a lot of noise, with MoMo Sanogo, Lakia Henry, and leading tackler linebacker Jacquez Jones. The unit also is set to welcome 4-star defensive lineman Tywone Malone, who could have an immediate impact up front.
3. Ole Miss' schedule
Winning on the road in the SEC is never easy, and luckily for the Rebels, they avoid back-to-back away games during the 2021 campaign. Additionally, the team has a three-game homestand starting in November that can help rally the roster during crunch time. Challenging games against Arkansas, LSU, and Texas A&M will be in the comfort of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
On the flip side, fans will know early what kind of squad Ole Miss will be with non-conference games in September against Louisville and Tulane followed by a meeting with the Crimson Tide at Bryant-Denny Stadium to start the month of October. With new coaching staffs, middle-of-the-season trips to Knoxville and Auburn do not loom as large. A game for the fans more so than the players, on Nov. 6, Hugh Freeze returns to town with the Liberty Flames after a 10-1 campaign last season.
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.