UCF had potential to be the fly in Ole Miss’ 2021 hype ointment.

On second thought, maybe we should back that up a bit. Tennessee had potential to be the fly in Ole Miss’ 2021 hype ointment.

Besides the never-ending push from Vol Twitter to return Lane Kiffin to Knoxville, Tennessee was at the root of another move that could’ve shaken up things in Oxford. By virtue of poaching UCF athletic director Danny White and then UCF coach Josh Heupel, the opening in Orlando made a lot of sense for Ole Miss offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby. It was a short year ago that Lebby was Heupel’s right-hand man, dialing up looks for the high-octane UCF offense. Add in the likely scenario in which new UCF athletic director Terry Mohajir hired an offensive-minded head coach, and yeah, it wasn’t any surprise when Lebby was reportedly one of the top targets.

But on Monday morning, Ole Miss fans breathed a sigh of relief. Gus Malzahn accepted the UCF job, not Lebby.

In other words, there are no flies in that 2021 Ole Miss hype train ointment.

Lebby departing would’ve been the great unknown. More impactful than the loss of the prolific Elijah Moore and breakout star Kenny Yeboah would’ve been what the Ole Miss offense looked like without the Broyles semifinalist on board. As much credit as Kiffin gets, and rightfully so, it’s not a coincidence that Lebby has been the quarterbacks coach or offensive coordinator for 3 consecutive top-15 offenses at 2 schools.

How important is Lebby? At season’s end, he got a casual 71% raise from $700,000 to $1.2 million annually. You know, because who doesn’t get a 71% raise after 1 year on the job?

Ole Miss dodged what should be the last potential wrench thrown by the coaching carousel. And according to multiple reports, it was much more serious than any of the Kiffin-associated rumors that linked him to Auburn or Tennessee. For at least another season, we’ll see the Lebby-Kiffin-Matt Corral trio. There’s no need to make the 2013 Texas A&M comp when the Kevin Sumlin-Kliff Kingsbury-Johnny Manziel trio lost the key middle man to his first head coaching gig (that’s referring to Kingsbury leaving for Texas Tech and watching an A&M offense destined for improvement instead plateau).

It’s not just Lebby’s return that should spark the Ole Miss’ 2021 hype train, or the fact that the season ended with an upset win against a top-15 Indiana team in the Outback Bowl.

In Bill Connelly’s annual preseason ranking of percentage of returning production, there’s 1 SEC team in the top 25 nationally. Spoiler alert — it’s the team in Oxford. Even without Moore and Yeboah, Ole Miss is 1 spot from cracking the top 1/3 nationally in percentage of returning offensive production. That seems important for a group that set the record for most yards per SEC game in league history, despite the fact that it didn’t have anything close to a normal offseason.

It’s easy to forget that in the midst of the wild offseason that was, Ole Miss went from a Rich Rodriguez offense to a Kiffin offense. For third-year players like Corral, it was the third offense in as many years. In spring ball, Corral was so frustrated by Kiffin’s offense that he started showing up for 5:30 a.m. film sessions with a grad assistant to master it. Soon, it turned into a ritual for the entire quarterback room.

And again, that group just had more yards per conference game (562.4) than any SEC team in history.

The crazy thing is that there’s room for improvement. Corral’s understanding of the offense should improve. Sure, he might have a 5-interception game again. How easy it is to forget that Ole Miss was a last-minute LSU touchdown from overcoming that and winning in Baton Rouge to close the regular season.

That, by the way, was Ole Miss’ only loss in its last 5 games. That’s not including the 7-point Auburn loss, which was highlighted by a blatant missed call on a missed kickoff return fumble that should’ve resulted in an Ole Miss touchdown.

But this isn’t about the “almosts” or the “what could’ve beens.” When you go 5-5 and 8 of your games are decided by 2 scores or less, there are plenty of those. This isn’t even about the inevitable record improvement by virtue of not having an all-SEC schedule.

(By the way, I’m already way too excited for Nov. 6 when Hugh Freeze returns to Oxford with Liberty. You should be, too.)

This is about the Ole Miss offense returning the best quarterback in the league with an elite backfield duo with 4 returning starters on the offensive line after it finished No. 1 in the SEC in rushing. Combine that with a promising group of pass-catchers and arguably the most unique weapon in the SEC with John Rhys Plumlee. And obviously, Kiffin and Lebby being back is massive. If Ole Miss doesn’t have a top-10 offense in America, it’ll be a surprise.

The elephant in the room, of course, is that defense, which ranked No. 125 out of 127 FBS teams against the pass, allowed more rushing touchdowns than any Power 5 team not named “Duke” and ranked No. 117 in scoring.

Yeah, that group. It’s not flipping a switch overnight, especially without a major shakeup at defensive coordinator. Even expecting mediocrity might be a bit ambitious. It could still struggle in 2020.

But it is at least worth mentioning that there are a few things working in Ole Miss’ favor on that side of the ball. Remember that percentage of returning production stat? Well, Ole Miss ranks No. 20 in that department with 83% of its returning defensive production back. That’s the result of having 10 defensive starters back, including the invaluable Otis Reese, who was eligible for the final 3 games of 2020 after transferring from Georgia. Taking away defensive scores, Ole Miss allowed 30 points per game during that stretch, which was a touch different than the 39 points per game allowed through the 7 games without Reese.

Partridge told the SEC Network crew before Reese’s first game that he thought he was already the best player on the defense. PFF had him charted for 64 snaps at defensive line, 74 snaps in the box, 96 snaps at slot corner, 10 at wide corner and 24 at free safety. Oh, and he was actually good when he was on the field:

Given Reese’s versatility, he’s a major reason there’s hope this group, with a (somewhat) normal offseason, should improve. That high returning production number — a number that exists because of returners like Reese, converted running back Tylan Knight and that entire group of starting linebackers — doesn’t account for a couple of things. Ole Miss also just added All-Big Ten honorable mention linebacker Chance Campbell, and in the last 2 classes, Kiffin signed 6 defensive players who were 4-star recruits.

Does that mean Ole Miss is going to start defending like Georgia? No. In all likelihood, Kiffin’s squad will once again find itself in its fair share of shootouts. Maybe for the second year in a row, it loses multiple games in which it scores 48 points.

But even just some improvement on defense would further the belief that Ole Miss isn’t very far from being dangerous in the SEC West. Nobody blew out Kiffin’s team in Year 1. Not Alabama, not LSU and certainly not Auburn.

Speaking of Auburn, the announcement of Malzahn’s move to UCF deserved 2 major celebrations — 1 in Orlando and 1 in Oxford. Lebby’s return warranted fist pumps and clipboard throws. Most importantly, it should serve as a reminder that SEC defenses dealt with first-hand in 2020.

Nobody should be sleeping on Ole Miss anymore.