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SEC Preview: Ole Miss

By Matt Smith
SouthernPigskin.com
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Matt Smith previews the 2020 Ole Miss Rebels.

OLE MISS REBELS
Head Coach: Lane Kiffin (first season at Ole Miss, ninth season overall); 61-34 overall, 4-4 SEC
Offensive Coordinator: Jeff Lebby (first season)
Defensive Coordinator: D.J. Durkin (first season)
2019 Recap: 4-8 (2-6 SEC)
The whole was less than the sum of the parts. The defense improved dramatically after the disaster of 2018, and Rich Rodriguez’s offense put up some electrifying ground numbers after the switch to quarterback John Rhys Plumlee, but the Rebels still finished with their worst record in eight seasons. The Rebels haven’t beaten an SEC team other than Arkansas or Vanderbilt since the 2017 Egg Bowl. Matt Luke was fired as head coach after three non-winning seasons, and Ole Miss swung for the fences with Lane Kiffin, who makes his return to the SEC after three seasons, two of which ended with Conference USA titles, at Florida Atlantic.

2020 Schedule
Sept. 26 – FLORIDA (Noon ET, ESPN)
Oct. 3 – at Kentucky (4 p.m. ET, SEC Network)
Oct. 10 – ALABAMA
Oct. 17 – at Arkansas
Oct. 24 – AUBURN
Oct. 31 – at Vanderbilt (4 p.m. ET, SEC Network)
Nov. 7 – Idle
Nov. 14 – SOUTH CAROLINA
Nov. 21 – at TEXAS A&M
Nov. 28 – MISSISSIPPI STATE
Dec.  5 – at LSU

Under Center
After losing his job to Plumlee, it appeared that rising sophomore Matt Corral would transfer somewhere closer to his West Coast home. Luke was fired 72 hours after the season-ending loss to Mississippi State, and in came Kiffin – a far better schematic fit for Corral than Rodriguez. Corral stayed put, and now the Rebels enter the home stretch of the preseason with a legitimate battle between the strong-armed Corral and the elusive Plumlee.

I’ve believed that this is Corral’s job to lose since the day he decided to remain at Ole Miss. Plumlee is a Swiss-army knife who is going to play, but his passing skills don’t yet have the refinement necessary to lead an effective SEC offense. Kiffin did coordinate a prolific offense at Alabama with former running back Blake Sims under center in 2014, but this isn’t Alabama. If Corral can reel in some of his poor decision-making, he should see the majority of work this season.

In The Trenches
Ole Miss is a bit of a poor man’s Auburn in terms of strengths and weaknesses. Like the Tigers, the Rebels are lacking in proven commodities on both lines. The defensive turnaround in 2019 was sparked by a pair of legitimate SEC defensive tackles in Benito Jones and Josiah Coatney, but both are gone. Sam Williams was a capable pass rusher last season, but he is currently suspended from the team and is unlikely to play in 2020. The second level of the defense must carry this group. Senior Lakia Henry and juniors Momo Sanogo, who missed all but two games of 2019, and Jacquez Jones make up a formidable unit.

The offensive lines bring back two starters in tackle Royce Newman and the versatile Ben Brown, who could see work at both guard and center, after center Eli Johnson left the team in August. Likely left tackle starter Nick Broeker saw significant work last season, so he’s not totally green. The 180-degree turn in scheme may cause some issues as well. It’s not a bad unit overall, but nothing really pops about it either.

On The Edge
Kiffin inherits some interesting weapons at the offensive skill positions. Jerrion Ealy and Snoop Conner combined for over 1,200 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns as freshmen, even with Plumlee being the primary rusher for most of the season. They’re not at the level of a T.J. Yeldon-Derrick Henry or Reggie Bush-LenDale White backfield combination, but their complementary skill sets will play well with a head coach who coordinated offenses with both of these duos.

Elijah Moore is the team’s top receiver, and could push the 1,000-yard mark even with the truncated season as he hopes to become known more for than just his unsportsmanlike conduct penalty at the end of last season’s Egg Bowl. The secondary is concerning. Fifth-year senior Jaylon Jones has been in and out of the starting lineup throughout his career. Recruiting restrictions on previous classes have left this unit pretty thin.

Ranking The Units
1.   Running Backs
2.   Linebackers
3.   Quarterbacks
4.   Receivers
5.   Defensive Backs
6.  Offensive Line
7.   Defensive Line

Schedule Analysis
It’s not bad by SEC West standards. The Rebels don’t play consecutive road games, and they avoid both Georgia and Tennessee. An 0-3 start seems likely, but as Kiffin’s team starts to gel, there are some winnable games in the middle part of the season. The Egg Bowl will probably determine whether this is just a throwaway season with the challenging circumstances or if it’s a true foundation for a resurgence of a middling program.

Season Prediction
Ole Miss should beat Arkansas and Vanderbilt, but with both games on the road, they are not certainties. The Rebels have lost their past two trips to Nashville, and needed a rally to beat a 2-10 Razorbacks team in their last visit to the Natural State. November home dates with South Carolina and Mississippi State are the two big swing games. I’ll call for a split, but it won’t be the split that Ole Miss fans prefer, as the Rebels drop their third straight Egg Bowl overall and third straight at home.

Record: 3-7
CFP Ranking: NR

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.