Two years ago in Starkville, Matt Corral was a backup quarterback who engineered a late touchdown drive to potentially force overtime as an underdog against Mississippi State.

The rest is Egg Bowl history.

Elijah Moore’s touchdown celebration mimicked a dog peeing and got flagged. Ole Miss missed an extra point and fired Matt Luke on the heels of a 5-win season. The program provided a belly laugh for the college football world. Ole Miss’ version of relevance was giving American households something entertaining to turn on when the post-turkey tryptophan set in. The Egg Bowl is supposed to be for shenanigans and unique intrastate warfare, not landmark achievements and New Year’s 6 bowl berths.

Just 2 years later, Lane Kiffin has already turned the top Rivalry Week guilty pleasure into his own personal showcase.

Nobody in 2019 could’ve looked into the crystal ball and seen Kiffin fist-pumping his way to Ole Miss’ first ever 10-win regular season. Given the nature of Kiffin and this sport, surely nobody can look into the crystal ball and accurately predict what 2 years from now will look like.

But 2021? Man, tip your cap to the artist formerly known as “Joey Freshwater.”

Think about this for a second. Kiffin is:

  • A) 2-0 in Egg Bowls
  • B) Going to a New Year’s 6 Bowl
  • C) Responsible for Ole Miss’ best regular season win total in school history
  • D) A win away from Ole Miss’ best AP Top 25 finish in half a century
  • E) All the above

It’s “E.” It’s always “E.”

That’s right. Thursday night’s Egg Bowl victory all but guaranteed that a 10-2 Ole Miss team will earn a top-12 ranking and head to a New Year’s 6 bowl for the first time in 6 years. The only question is whether that’ll be the Sugar Bowl or the Fiesta Bowl (it’ll depend on if Alabama wins or loses in the SEC Championship). Either way, that’s what we call “a turnaround.”

If Ole Miss finishes better than No. 10 in the AP Poll, it’ll be the best finish since the 1969 Ole Miss team, led by a certain Archie Manning, finished No. 8 after a Sugar Bowl win. Time will tell how this season will compare to that one.

What Kiffin deserves credit for is taking that ideal Year 2 step. It was essentially nothing but good vibes dating all the way back to the Outback Bowl upset win against Indiana. What was Ole Miss’ low in that stretch? Losing to Alabama and watching Kiffin get mocked for saying “get your popcorn ready.” Kiffin was making fun of himself about that the entire week after the Tide rolled his squad. And hey, if we’re being honest, Year 2 coaches who take over 5-win programs aren’t supposed to beat Alabama anyway.

You’re not supposed to do it like Ole Miss did. You’re not supposed to be the program without much historical success that gets hit by NCAA sanctions … and then comes out of it with a splashy hire that works well enough to yield a historical season in Year 2.

That model exists on message boards, not in the SEC West.

As much as this team might look like Kiffin simply maximized Luke-era talent like Corral, Jerrion Ealy, Braylon Sanders and others, he could’ve made countless missteps along the way.

Remember when Kiffin picked Corral to start over fan favorite John Rhys Plumlee? The former is now a legitimate first-round quarterback prospect and the latter is a fun, but lightly used gadget player. Kiffin could’ve bailed on Corral when he struggled to pick up the offense in his first spring, or he could’ve yanked Corral during one of his 5- or 6-interception games. He didn’t.

Remember when Kiffin hired DJ Durkin to run his defense when he was damaged goods after a disastrous ending on and off the field at Maryland? He’s now leading a vastly improved defense that held 5 of its last 6 opponents to 21 points or less. Kiffin could’ve bailed on Durkin after 2020 when his defense couldn’t stop a nosebleed and finished dead last in the SEC in scoring. He didn’t.

There were countless transfer portal decisions with guys like Chance Campbell, Otis Reese, Jake Springer and others who are now playing big roles for Kiffin’s team. Lord knows there are plenty of in-game decisions that allowed Ole Miss to get to 10-2. As much heat as Kiffin takes for going for more 4th downs than anyone in America, it’s hard to argue with the result.

This is exactly where Ole Miss wanted and hoped to be. At least realistically.

Corral’s ankle injury didn’t torpedo the season. Last year? That’s probably a different story. Last year, Ole Miss lost 3 games in which it scored 35 points. It certainly wasn’t built to win a game like it did on Thursday night.

Against a surging MSU offense, Ole Miss went on the road and put the clamps on. Sure, it helped that the Bulldogs dropped 3 touchdowns on the same drive to end the half and then missed a field goal. But don’t let that take away from what Sam Williams and the Ole Miss defense did. Don’t let it take away from the maturation that Corral showed under Kiffin. On Thursday, Corral was a far cry from the true freshman who was throwing haymakers in the end zone.

Corral has grown. So has Kiffin.

He’s no longer the immature coach who called out Urban Meyer’s recruiting before he ever coached at Tennessee. Kiffin is wiser than he was more than a decade ago, which is why it’d be a bit outdated to say he’s destined to leave for another job in the coming weeks. Maybe there’ll come a time when Kiffin wants to move on to an even bigger job, or maybe there won’t. All we know is he just showed Ole Miss’ ceiling was higher than anyone could’ve predicted 2 years ago.

It was fitting that Kiffin had a little extra juice in the tank on Thursday night. In his first Egg Bowl as the visiting head coach, Kiffin didn’t hold back his emotions.

With 5 minutes left, Ealy dove into the end zone to give Ole Miss an 18-point lead. Kiffin let out a fist pump and then turned around to the MSU crowd, who watched him do his best Vince Carter imitation to tell them “it’s over.”

Dare I say, Kiffin might just be getting started in Oxford.