Coming into 2021, there was a consensus with Ole Miss’ season-long outlook.

If it could just flirt with mediocrity on defense, Lane Kiffin’s squad would take that next step in Year 2.

On Monday night, Ole Miss’ defense didn’t just flirt with mediocrity; it went off to Las Vegas and got hitched to greatness. At least in the first half it did.

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Is that a Week 1 overreaction? Perhaps.

But anybody who watched Ole Miss stomp Louisville 43-24 and not even flirt with competitiveness on Monday night saw something obvious — that’s a much a different defense than 2020.

As in, that was a much different defense than the one that finished No. 118 of 128 FBS teams in scoring. There was a noticeable change in the team who allowed 40-plus points in half of its games in 2020.

It wasn’t just an offseason narrative. On Monday, it was real.

And boy, if that Ole Miss defense is for real, heads up, SEC West.

Of course, it was just one game. Really, it was the one half that prompted that. Ole Miss did surrender 24 points in the second half, though it wasn’t with chunk plays and horrendous tackling like we often saw in Year 1 of the Kiffin era.

Without Kiffin, who was in Oxford after he tested positive for COVID, Ole Miss’ defense showed up ready to roll. It was probably a good sign that Maryland transfer Chance Campbell started Louisville’s opening drive with a tackle for loss, and he finished it with a stuff on 4th down to force a turnover on downs.

Campbell looked the part. So did Tylan Knight and Lakia Henry. Well, Henry did until he was one of 4 players ejected for targeting in the first half.

The Big Ten official crew was apparently the only group who had a problem with Ole Miss’ defense in the first half:

Don’t get it twisted. Ole Miss knows how to tackle. In 2020? Yeah, that was a fair question to ask on a weekly basis. But the 2021 version of DJ Durkin’s defense looked comfortable in the system. It looked like a group that was no longer thinking about where it had to be and when, which was all we heard about during the offseason. It looked like a group that pinned its ears back and forced mistakes, especially in the first half.

Ole Miss pitched a first-half shutout against a Power 5 team for the first time since 2016. Those 2 scoreless quarters came from a defense that only had 6 scoreless quarters all of last year. It allowed just 107 total yards in the first half, which was its lowest total in any game since 2014.

Oh, here’s the kicker.

In the first half, Louisville’s leader in passing yards (with 1.9 yards per attempt), receiving (with 1 catch for 9 yards) and rushing was quarterback Malik Cunningham. Yeah, it was that kind of night for Louisville.

Not bad for a defense that ranked dead last in the SEC in average yards allowed (519).

The final box score will suggest it was a decent night because of the 24 points surrendered, though with Ole Miss jumping out to a 26-0 lead, all of Louisville’s points were essentially in garbage time. The damage was done. Whether that was by capitalizing on a Cunningham mistake with a late throw over the middle that Deantre Prince picked off or Tariqious Tisdale getting backside pressure to force an incompletion with Louisville in its own end zone, Ole Miss was everywhere.

Maybe there was some carryover from the impressive Outback Bowl showing. Perhaps it was having the versatile Otis Reese out there after he missed most of last season stuck in SEC intra-conference transfer limbo. Or it could’ve just been having a normal offseason with Durkin that prompted such a loud opening statement.

Whatever the case, that’s going to raise the floor of Ole Miss moving forward.

The scary thing is, it seemed like a Kiffin-less offense actually left plenty of points on the board. While Jeff Lebby’s play-calling was still on point, Ole Miss had multiple touchdowns taken off the board and it settled for 3 field goals. Matt Corral looked like an even better version of his 2020 self, and those issues against drop-8 coverage that he was so direct about appear to be in the past (he had a casual 381 yards through the air without a turnover). Dontario Drummond did his best Elijah Moore imitation by catching 3 times as many passes as anyone in an Ole Miss uniform.

Speaking of scary things, Snoop Conner told the story of the night.

That’s some pretty physical stuff for a team in that “sissy” blue.

Unlike Ed Orgeron’s team, though, Ole Miss appears to believe in the art of defense. What a crazy concept.

Does that mean we’re about to see the ’85 Bears on a weekly basis in Oxford? Nope. It could be a week-to-week thing. It could be a half-to-half thing. There could still be a few shootouts in Ole Miss’ future. But with how dynamic that offense is again, the defense doesn’t need to be on a historically dominant level to hang tough in the West race.

Remember that for now, we’re just talking about flirting with mediocrity, not a courtship with greatness.

We’ll find out soon enough just how serious the Ole Miss defense is.