Lane Kiffin is entering his third season as the coach at Ole Miss, and he's tasked with sustaining the success for which the groundwork was laid last season when the Rebels went 10-3 and made the Sugar Bowl for the first time since the 2015 season. If he's going to sustain that success, though, he'll have to do it without former star Matt Corral, who will be one of the first quarterbacks off the board in the upcoming 2022 NFL Draft. Also gone are running backs Jerrion Ealy and Snoop Conner, as well as wide receivers Dontario Drummond and Braylon Sanders.
Translation: Kiffin has some work to do. But luckily for Ole Miss fans, most of it is already done.
Kiffin lured Jaxson Dart away from USC to succeed Corral and lead the Rebels offense after Dart threw for 1,353 yards and nine touchdowns in six games last season for the Trojans. That's not a bad resume, but Dart also has some competition from veteran Luke Altmyer. The result is a healthy culture of competition that championship-caliber teams need.
"I know it's kind of coach-speak. Both guys have made a lot of plays. It's a good competition," Kiffin said earlier this month. "Without getting into too much depth, Jaxson has made more plays down the field, but he's made more mistakes, too. Luke has been a little more consistent that way. Probably what would happen knowing one guy's been in the system longer, so we'll see."
Kiffin also convinced former five-star running back recruit Zach Evans to move to Oxford from TCU after he rushed for 648 yards and five touchdowns in six games. Former SMU star Ulysses Bentley (610 yards, four touchdowns) has also found a new home with the Rebels. They will be the leaders of a revamped running back corps without Ealy and Conner in the mix. Ole Miss lost more than 90% of its rushing production over the offseason, but Evans appears to be ready to shoulder most of the load.
Kiffin talked about Bentley and the running back room earlier this month after practice.
"We've lost our top three running backs from a year ago, so that was a very important addition," Kiffin said of Bentley. "I think he did some great things there when he was healthy. Kind of had some Devin Singletary type of runs and stuff, so unique timing with all of this and to be able to add guys and they are here today is kind of crazy. I mean I've made all of the references to we have free agency, but even we have free agency and even more to the fact that a guy's at another program a few days ago and now he's here it truly is like free agency."
As for the defensive side of the ball, sure, Ole Miss has been dreadful. It finished 11th in the SEC total defense, eighth in defensive yards per play, eighth in scoring defense, eighth in third-down conversion percentage and 10th in red zone touchdown percentage last season. Basically, pick a defensive statistic that you value and there's a pretty good chance that Ole Miss wasn't successful in that department.
However, defense doesn't win championships anymore -- "just enough" defense does. And the definition of "just enough" varies based on roster makeup, opponent and a variety of other factors.
Kiffin has molded Ole Miss into an offensive destination for high school players and potential transfers, which is exactly what any top-tier program should be in this day and age of offensive creativity. Styles make fights, and Ole Miss dictates style more than any other team in the SEC West outside of Tuscaloosa. Yes, that includes Texas A&M. The Aggies have the buzz, but the Rebels have the resume, coach, quarterback and skill players to be much more of a threat.
Can Kiffin spring the upset over his former boss, Nick Saban, and lead the Rebels to their first ever SEC West title? That's a tough mountain to climb -- one that includes jagged edges, vertical peaks and dangerous rockslides. But he has established a culture that fits perfectly into the modern age of college football, has brilliantly used the transfer portal and already has proven that he can win at a high level.
The best is yet to come, and we'll all get a glimpse of it during Saturday's spring game.