Ole Miss football: Reassessing the Rebels after their 3-0 start
Ole Miss is one a quarter of the way through its 2021 season. The Rebels are 3-0 and look the part of a program on the rise and a team on the precipice of contending for a New Year’s 6 bowl game.
Let’s examine some storylines through 3 weeks.
The Corral Heisman hype is real
If it is possible for Matt Corral to be better than advertised, he has certainly tried. He has thrown for 997 yards with 9 touchdowns, 5 rushing touchdowns and no turnovers. He is in complete command of an offense that looks even more dynamic and fluid than it did in 2020 in the second year under Lane Kiffin and Jeff Lebby. As Ole Miss continues to win, Corral will continue to emerge as a Hesiman contender. The season is only 3 weeks old, but he is the favorite, and I am not sure how close it is. A showdown with Alabama in 2 weeks offers an opportunity to propel his candidacy even further.
The defensive improvement changes this team’s ceiling
Ole Miss has had one of the worst defenses in the FBS each of the last 3 years. This year is a different story, as the Rebels have replenished their talent on that side. Newfound secondary depth prompted a move to a 3-2-6 base look, and the transition has underscored this team’s strengths. There are still concerns on the interior defensive line, and this group has yet to be tested against the run. That will come in 2 weeks in Tuscaloosa. But Ole Miss’s improvement in tackling, gap discipline and overall speed have fueled this defense’s ascent toward respectability. It is vital that the Rebels stay healthy as depth is still a concern, particularly in the front 7. But the improvement of this defense is plainly obvious and gives this team a chance against anyone it plays.
Drummond’s emergence taxes opposing secondaries even more
Kiffin and Lebby have found something special with Dontario Drummond in the slot. The senior has 20 receptions for 339 yards and 4 touchdowns. His ability to get open over the middle has stretched opposing secondaries even more, and as you saw in Saturday’s win, it has forced them to divert attention away from Braylon Sanders and Jonathan Mingo on the outside. Drummond doesn’t have the breakaway speed of Sanders or the physicality of Mingo, but he is a good route runner with tremendous hands. His emergence in the slot and at h-back has made this offense even tougher to stop. Someone has to be left 1-on-1, and that is a matchup win for Ole Miss every single time. Without Drummond being a threat, that would not be the case. He has been a vital piece to this offense’s success.
Ole Miss has solved its kicking woes
Thanks to Caden Costa, Ole Miss now has a sufficient field-goal kicking battery, which is important for a number of reasons but particularly considering how dynamic this offense has been. Kiffin and Lebby no longer have to be hyperaggressive in plus territory like they were in 2020 because kicking a field goal wasn’t a plausible option. They even let Costa try a 50-yarder in the win over Tulane. He pushed it right, but it had the distance, and the attempt itself speaks to the confidence Kiffin has in the kicking game. Costa is 4-for-5 on the year and will win a game for Ole Miss at some point this season — you can bank on that.
The offensive line has started slow
This group looked much better in the win over Tulane and appears to be rounding into form, but the Rebels were a little sluggish up front during the first 2 games. Utah transfer Orlando Umana is still getting acclimated to this offense and had a nearly 2-year hiatus in game action due to injury, and it’s clear it has taken time for him to get back into form. Ole Miss is thin at tackle, but its starters have played well in spots. The guard play has been decent aside from the first game. Corral has been sacked 4 times, and the running game sputtered against Lousiville, but the win over Tulane served as evidence that this group is getting used to playing with one another and is improving.
Expectations have shifted toward 10 wins
The thought of Ole Miss winning 10 games seemed a bit overambitious in the preseason, but is absolutely realistic given what we have seen. This is partly due to all the reasons above, plus the SEC West outside of Alabama looks pedestrian at best. There isn’t a game on the schedule that Ole Miss cannot win, Alabama included, though the Tide should deservedly be heavy favorites in that matchup. If Ole Miss continues this pace offensively and the defense stays healthy, the Rebels are absolutely capable of winning 10 games. They will likely enter November at 7-1, with Liberty, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State left. Are you betting against this team winning 3 of those? Ole Miss has a chance to have a special season in Year 2 of the Kiffin era.