Much of the conversation surrounding a transfer-filled Ole Miss team this season and ahead of it has had to do with the quarterback position, in which the competition has been settled, and a ground attack that has been among the best in the nation this season.

But it’s time to turn a bit more attention to the defensive unit, which proved last week it could compete with the country’s best. The 5-0 Rebels, who moved up 5 spots to No. 9 in the new AP poll, made some crucial plays on that side of the ball and came away with a 22-19 victory last Saturday over a Kentucky team that’s still ranked 13th despite the loss.

Inside the final 3 minutes of the game, Austin Keys forced a fumble by Kentucky quarterback Will Levis on 3rd-and-2 from the Ole Miss 19-yard line, saving what would have been a 1st down and likely could have spelled disaster as the Rebels looked to open SEC play on a high note.

But that wasn’t the end of it.

There was still a game left to finish and despite the lack of time, Kentucky still managed to make another trip to the red zone. But the Ole Miss defense once again denied the Wildcats and allowed the Rebels to seal a close victory inside the final seconds of the game. It was defensive end Jared Ivey who stripped the ball from Levis before he had a chance to get the throw off. Tavius Robinson recovered the fumble, and the nail was firmly in the coffin for the Wildcats.

Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin had no shortage of praise for the defensive unit following the victory.

“People have got to rise up and people have got to make plays, and it was cool because the defense made that [first] play and somebody might say, ‘OK, we won the game,'” Kiffin said. “But no, there were still two and a half minutes left, and they did it again, which was huge.”

The Rebels made a statement with the way they were able to play well on multiple fronts against a highly respectable opponent. Some had doubted whether or not the success they had was for real because they opened the season against 4 nonconference opponents, all of which were largely deemed to be lesser competition.

Outside of the pair of critical plays that stole the show, the Rebels held Levis, who is projected to be a first-round draft choice if not the first overall pick, to 220 yards passing and completely stifled the power-running quarterback on the ground as he recorded a final rushing stat line of minus-19 yards on 9 carries.

“That’s pretty good defense, to hold them to 19 points when they’ve got the first pick in the draft,” Kiffin said.

The Rebels are on a good track defensively, generally speaking. Ole Miss has allowed only 59 points over the first 5 games of the season. That’s the second-fewest points allowed by the program over that span of time over the past 30 years.

The unit ranks 28th in total defense in the nation and is 5th in the SEC in that category. Ole Miss has the 40th-ranked rushing defense and 37th-ranked passing defense in the country. Numbers and rankings aside, if this defense can continue to make key plays at essential times like it did on Saturday against Kentucky, paired with the developing passing game and ground game that continues to be formidable, this will be a team to be reckoned with all season long.

Kiffin believes there’s still some tweaks to be made, but there is nothing but respect for a team that has ascended all the way to No. 9 in the AP rankings.

“We’ve not all of a sudden got it figured out,” Kiffin said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do, and I’m excited to get back to it and excited we’re still undefeated.”

The Rebels hope to stay that way this Saturday at Vanderbilt.