Editor’s note: Saturday Down South’s annual Crystal Ball series continues today with Ole Miss. We’ll stay with the SEC West all week. Next week, we’ll predict every game for every SEC East team.

If you’re an Ole Miss fan, I don’t think you could’ve asked for much more.

In Year 2 of the Lane Kiffin era, the program had its best regular-season win total ever. That led to a Sugar Bowl trip at season’s end. Matt Corral was a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender and a defense with major questions entering the season saw great improvement. A 10-win season coming out of the SEC West is nothing to scoff at.

Could it have been better? Sure. The Alabama game could’ve been closer. Corral could’ve stayed healthy and the season could’ve ended with a New Year’s 6 bowl victory.

But at the same time, don’t devalue what 2021 meant at Ole Miss. Now well removed from the Hugh Freeze-era sanctions, there’s a different vibe in Oxford. Kiffin’s 2021 success allowed him to recruit the next batch of potential SEC stars, many of whom arrived via the transfer portal. It also provided opportunities for coordinators Jeff Lebby and DJ Durkin to get raises and new jobs elsewhere.

What does that mean for Kiffin heading into Year 3? Let’s dig into that:

The portal king

What does a coach do coming off a historic season when he ranks No. 98 in FBS in percentage of returning production? In previous years, it would’ve been all about “next man up” and preaching the importance of underclassmen coming into their own. In 2022, it’s all about the transfer portal.

To say that Kiffin loaded up in the portal would be an understatement. He signed 17 transfers, 13 of whom came from the Power 5 ranks. Only USC finished with a higher-rated transfer portal class. Fittingly, it’s USC where Kiffin plucked tight end Michael Trigg and quarterback Jaxson Dart (more on him in a minute).

What we have yet to see is how a team with so many transfer portal veterans meshes. The 1-time exemption added a new wrinkle to the sport that allowed programs like Ole Miss and South Carolina to pluck ready-to-play guys instead of hoping inexperienced talent will pan out.

I mean, Ole Miss lost its top 3 running backs and running backs coach Kevin Smith … and it reloaded with TCU transfer Zach Evans and SMU transfer Ulysses Bentley.

Ole Miss would still love to develop its in-house talent. If Jonathan Mingo and Nick Broeker could become first-team All-SEC guys, that would be a major lift for an offense in transition. But Ole Miss’ 2022 potential will be determined by how well Kiffin’s portal haul steps in and looks the part.

Who will replace Matt Corral?

The battle to succeed Corral is the biggest question in Oxford. There was an early assumption that Dart would be the guy after Kiffin landed him at the end of his true freshman season. After all, he got half a season’s worth of starts at USC while classmate Luke Altmyer barely played as Corral’s backup, and when he did play, well, it was a struggle. Granted, Altmyer’s only game with significant reps came in relief against Dave Aranda’s defense. Dart didn’t face a defense like that in his lone year at USC.

The question now is about who’ll master Kiffin’s offense and become the next QB1. Altmyer has that all-important experience in the system, but Dart boasts the on-field reps at the Power 5 level. Both have mobility and can seemingly make all the throws in Kiffin’s offense. Despite what their recruiting rankings suggest, decision-making will be the deciding factor.

We knew that Kiffin was going to add a quarterback in the portal with Altmyer and Kinkead Dent as the program’s lone scholarship quarterbacks returning. In addition to Corral leaving for the NFL, John Rhys Plumlee transferred to UCF and Kiffin didn’t sign a 2022 quarterback recruit. It made sense to go after someone with 3 years of eligibility left like Dart, regardless of whether he establishes himself as QB1.

Whoever wins the job has some awfully big shoes to fill.

Should we expect significant defensive regression?

Last year, I kept saying that if the Ole Miss defense could just flirt with mediocrity, the program would take a significant step forward. That happened. Ole Miss held 7 Power 5 opponents to 26 points or less. Durkin got huge years from Sam Williams and Maryland transfer Chance Campbell.

Now, though, all 3 of those guys are gone. In addition to having a new defensive play-caller in Maurice Crum, Ole Miss is expected to have plenty of new faces, some of whom came by way of the transfer portal. That includes Auburn transfer and Oxford native JJ Pegues, who Kiffin once said “could be a top-5 pick” if he switched to a 3-technique defensive lineman.

Troy Brown (Central Michigan) and Isheem Young (Iowa State) are expected to make an immediate impact for a defense that has some key holes to fill, especially with edge rushers. Improvements aside, Ole Miss still didn’t crack the top 100 in FBS against the run. That, one would think, has to change, especially in the likely event that the offense takes a step back.

Last year showed that even if Ole Miss has games where it looks disastrous defensively, it doesn’t mean a 6-win season is imminent. Defensive regression back to the 2020 group would make Kiffin age in dog years. Thankfully for him, his portal additions should prevent that.

Game-by-game predictions

Week 1: vs. Troy (W)

Nobody should ever sleep on Troy after what happened to LSU in 2017. There could be a bit of sloppiness from a new-look Ole Miss offense to start against a Troy defense that ranks No. 6 in FBS in percentage of returning defensive production, but I’d still expect Broeker and that offensive line to do the heavy lifting and take over in the second half.

Week 2: vs. Central Arkansas (W)

This is the day that Ole Miss fans fall in love with tailback Kentrel Bullock. Book it.

Week 3: at Georgia Tech (W)

There’s a chance that Ole Miss runs into a desperate Yellow Jackets squad that’s playing for its coach on the hot seat. Or there’s a chance that we saw one team who has a backfield that benefitted greatly from the transfer portal, and one team who didn’t. Ole Miss is the former by virtue of adding Evans and Bentley, while Georgia Tech is the latter by losing Jahmyr Gibbs to Alabama. That gives Ole Miss a road advantage to win in Atlanta for the second consecutive year.

Week 4: vs. Tulsa (W)

Last year, Tulsa played in a 1-score game in the 4th quarter at Oklahoma State, Ohio State and Cincinnati, all of which finished as top-10 teams. This year, however, Tulsa ranks No. 110 in percentage of returning production, and it had 2 offensive linemen selected in the 2022 NFL Draft. An Ole Miss defensive line with some questions delivers its best performance to date and Malik Heath has a breakout game against the Tulsa secondary to fuel a 3-score win.

Week 5: vs. Kentucky (W)

This game has sneaky shootout potential. A Kentucky front with questions post-Josh Paschal could struggle to slow down the Ole Miss ground game. Alternatively, Will Levis is capable of making Ole Miss pay for not consistently pressuring him. This battle of 10-win teams is loaded with twists and turns. Both teams turn the ball over, both teams take a second-half lead and both teams have a chance to win late. But Jonathan Mingo slips through the Kentucky defense to set up a goal-line score that ultimately keeps Ole Miss perfect to start 2022.

Week 6: at Vanderbilt (W)

A pair of mobile quarterbacks really get a chance to shine. Does that set up for Mike Wright to lead Vandy to an upset? Not quite. Ole Miss stops trading touchdowns in the 3rd quarter and sinks Clark Lea’s defense with a long touchdown off play-action.

Week 7: vs. Auburn (W)

With all the defensive line transfers that Auburn had in the offseason — that includes Pegues to Ole Miss — I worry about how that’ll play out against teams with a solid ground game, especially when depth is tested in the latter half of the season. That sets up well for Ole Miss. Evans and Bentley should have a banner day to help Kiffin avenge last year’s loss at Jordan-Hare.

Week 8: at LSU (W)

A brutal 4-week stretch for LSU’s run defense ends with a date against Evans, Bentley and that prolific Ole Miss ground game. The depth in the front 7 is tested, and Kiffin recognizes that his experienced offensive line has the advantage up front. Ole Miss follows the game plan Florida executed the previous week against LSU. The state of Mississippi hands Brian Kelly a Baton Rouge sweep in Year 1.

Week 9: at Texas A&M (L)

I’m calling it. College GameDay will be in the house to see an unbeaten, top-5 Ole Miss squad face off against a fringe-Top 25 A&M squad. The battle of Nick Saban disciples — call it the “Durkin Bowl” if you don’t want everything to be about Saban — has huge implications for a potential New Year’s 6 bowl. So who makes the difference? Finally, it’s Evan Stewart. The A&M true freshman receiver has the breakout game that Aggie fans have been waiting for. He torches the Ole Miss secondary twice. Instead of Kiffin sending his play sheet into the sky, he fires his visor into the turf at the end of a frustrating offensive showing in College Station.

Week 10: Bye

Week 11: vs. Alabama (L)

There will be 3 or 4 regular-season games when Alabama’s defense looks mortal. This will be one of them. The good news for the Tide is that this game is late in the season and Ole Miss’ depth in the trenches could be tested, especially on the defensive front. In a battle of elite dual-threat tailbacks, it’s Gibbs who steals the show. Kiffin’s bid to become the next Saban disciple to take down the G.O.A.T. comes up short in Oxford.

Week 12: at Arkansas (L)

Much like LSU, it’s hard to project how a team with double-digit Power 5 transfers will look by season’s end. That’s Ole Miss. These teams played in what was, in my opinion, the best game of the regular season. It was KJ Jefferson’s coming out party even though it came in a losing effort. This time, I don’t expect him to come up short. In another high-scoring affair, Jefferson does his damage with his legs and avoids a 2021 repeat.

Week 13: vs. MSU (L)

I could give you the Xs and Os breakdown and talk about why I think MSU will force the Ole Miss passing game to do the heavy lifting and why that gives me some pause. Or I could just say that I don’t think Mike Leach is going to start 0-3 in Egg Bowls. That’d be an awfully tough thing to stomach considering how much personnel turnover Ole Miss is dealing with. Will Rogers locks into a rhythm early and delivers Leach his first Egg Bowl victory.

2022 projection: 8-4 (4-4), 5th in SEC West


Sorry, Ole Miss fans. For the sake of your sanity, I hope an 8-0 start isn’t followed by a 4-game losing streak to end the regular season. It’s strange to think of a team loaded with personnel turnover could start so well only to hit the skids late. To be fair, that’s really the way the schedule sets up.

Ole Miss only faces 1 Power 5 team with a winning record before Halloween weekend, and that’s a home game against Kentucky. There’s some room for Ole Miss to figure things out early. Dare I say, we won’t see a vintage Kiffin quarterback for parts of that 8-0 start. We could actually be more impressed with how the Ole Miss signal-callers perform down the stretch.

So why the late losing streak? I’m concerned about the depth. Even though there are plenty of ready-to-play transfers, I do think there’s a significant learning curve for the defense. In addition to that, I worry that those last 4 opposing defenses are all capable of forcing Ole Miss into some obvious passing situations playing from a deficit. That’s perhaps the biggest difference between this year’s squad and last year’s.

But if a trip to a Florida bowl game is the end result after Ole Miss lost that much production, well, I’d say that’s not a bad place to be.