The SDS Crystal Ball: Predicting every game for Ole Miss football in 2021
Editor’s note: Saturday Down South’s annual Crystal Ball prediction series continues with Ole Miss. Coming Sunday: Texas A&M. Monday we shift to the SEC East, beginning with Florida.
That’s how I’d describe 2020 Ole Miss. It was a drunken, good time full of off-the-wall moments that no sober team could’ve created. Clipboards flew, scoreboards lit up and fun was had by all. Well, at least those who watched without a rooting interest or never needed a defensive stop.
As for the rest of us, tequila.
And sure, after a night like Alabama, the hangover was a head-pounding loss of a day like Arkansas. It happens. That’s tequila. You don’t drink it to have a casual night of 3-yard runs and 17-14 games. Who needs that?
Ole Miss doesn’t need to be more entertaining. Lane Kiffin has that covered. What Ole Miss needs is to not be one of the worst defenses in America, which it was in 2020. One would think Ole Miss shouldn’t need to score 40 points just to have a chance (it still lost twice despite hitting 48 points).
Above all else, Kiffin’s team needs a Year 2 bump that gives the program its first AP Top 25 finish since 2015.
Can that happen? Let’s break that down.
What a difference a year makes (in the quarterback room)
At this time last year, I banged the drum that I wanted to see John Rhys Plumlee earn the starting quarterback job in Year 1 of the Kiffin era.
At this time this year, I’m banging the drum that Matt Corral is the best quarterback in America not named “Sam Howell” or “Spencer Rattler.”
A lot changed in a year. Like, Corral won the starting job and figured out just how the Kiffin/Jeff Lebby offense is supposed to look. He developed a sense of when to call his own number, and he learned when he needed to keep his eyes downfield to target Elijah Moore or Kenny Yeboah. Both of those guys are gone, but Corral is back to play in the same offense for the first time in his college career.
That should bode well after he was No. 4 among Power 5 quarterbacks in quarterback rating and he was No. 8 among Power 5 quarterbacks in rushing.
Yes, he had the 2 games with 5-plus interceptions. Corral also completed 71% of his passes. He talked extensively about how much drop-8 coverage messed with him in that Arkansas game, and how he worked to improve against that specific defense. I bet he does.
If there’s any Corral stock left, I’m buying it.
Replacing Elijah Moore
Moore had almost 3 times as many receptions as the next-closest Ole Miss pass-catcher. For my money, DeVonta Smith was the only receiver in America who was better than Moore. He racked up 1,257 scrimmage yards in just 8 games. Sorry, but there’s not a guy on the Ole Miss roster who can do all the things that Moore did with getting separation and making plays downfield. Corral’s safety valve is gone.
But does Ole Miss have tons of potential at receiver? Absolutely. Braylon Sanders, Jonathan Mingo and Dontario Drummond are expected to step into bigger roles. Will they trade off being the No. 1 target for Corral? Perhaps.
What made Moore so dynamic was that he lined up anywhere and made plays (491 slot snaps and 108 outside receiver snaps). Is there an interchangeable guy in that group?
Jerrion Ealy is going to get more reps at receiver coming off offseason shoulder surgery. Ole Miss could use him to catch passes out of the backfield or line up in the slot.
Of course, there’s also the Plumlee factor. Kiffin and Lebby did a lot of things immensely well in 2020, but one of their few offensive shortcomings was only getting Plumlee 38 scrimmage touches all year. Now playing a hybrid receiver role in that offense, can he add some of the home-run play ability that Ole Miss is searching for without Moore and Yeboah? It wouldn’t be a surprise, especially after Plumlee’s Outback Bowl performance.
#OleMiss lost its top playmaker in Elijah Moore last season.
For the 2021 season, the new playmaker is:
QB/WR John Rhys Plumlee pic.twitter.com/k7DnLdRMZO
— Brad Logan (@BradLoganCOTE) August 1, 2021
As electric as Plumlee is, filling Moore’s shoes will be a group effort. And it won’t be a particularly easy one.
Time to get defensive
If Ole Miss was tequila last year, the offense was the buzz that fueled karaoke, salsa dancing and late-night tacos. What was the defense? The don’t-get-out-of-bed hangover. Obviously.
The numbers were, um, not great (FBS ranks):
- No. 125 vs. the pass
- No. 118 in scoring
- No. 106 in defensive 3rd-down percentage
- No. 101 vs. the run
- No. 100 in red-zone defense
On the bright side, it can’t get much worse than that. I don’t think, at least. Will it be the best defense in college football like Lakia Henry said Ole Miss could be? Nope, nor does it have to be.
If Ole Miss can reach mediocrity, that’d be a massive turn of events. Can that happen? Leading tackler Jacquez Jones transferred to Kentucky, but the good news is that there’s still a ton of production from last year. Jaylon Jones and Tylan Knight should lead an improved secondary, and Henry returns to lead the linebackers with MoMo Sanogo.
Maryland transfer and all-Big Ten honorable mention linebacker Chance Campbell is on board and Otis Reese should get a full season after his eligibility was delayed because of transfer rules. Reese’s impact was felt down the stretch when he lined up all over the field and plugged holes in a hybrid role for DJ Durkin’s group.
The question isn’t whether Ole Miss is going to have an elite defense. It’s whether it can have more showings like the Outback Bowl and fewer showings like the LSU game, where tackling seemed impossible. Is that — for lack of a better word — possible? I think so.
Week 1: vs. Louisville in Atlanta (W)
There’s part of me that envisions Malik Cunningham running around and making plays all over the field against the Ole Miss defense. Then there’s another part of me that thinks about Miami’s D’Eriq King lighting up Louisville for 47 points last year, and I think Corral and Co. can do the same. Interceptions from Knight and Sanogo give Ole Miss enough to escape Atlanta with a win.
Week 2: vs. Austin Peay (W)
Can we see Plumlee at quarterback for this one? Please? Austin Peay was outscored by an average of 45 points in its 2 games vs. FBS competition last year. Consider that all the more reason to let Plumlee run the wildcat for an evening.
Week 3: vs. Tulane (W)
Tulane opens with Oklahoma, so a high-flying offense won’t be unfamiliar at that point. That doesn’t, however, mean that a Group of 5 team coming off a season with a losing conference record will have the answers needed to hang with Ole Miss. This winds up being a big Sanders performance in a comfortable victory heading into the bye.
Week 4: Bye
Week 5: at Alabama (L)
Now it gets real. Can Kiffin become the first Nick Saban assistant to take down the master? It’s possible, though not likely. Remember that Saban also hasn’t lost to a non-top 15 team since 2010. That’s more impressive than his disciple streak. Kiffin will have a few tricks up his sleeve. Will he also have some defensive stops up his sleeve? I don’t think so. Even if the Ole Miss defense flirts with mediocrity in 2021, I can’t imagine it slowing down the Tide enough to get out of Tuscaloosa with a win.
Week 6: vs. Arkansas (W)
Redemption game? You bet. I’m imagining Corral sitting down in a dark room breaking down film of last year’s 6-interception disaster. He’s not combusting like that again. Corral shows off his maturity and avoids throwing into the arm of Grant Morgan (people forget he only had 1 healthy arm). Kiffin busts out the Plumlee package and keeps Arkansas guessing.
Week 7: at Tennessee (W)
Ah, yes. Kiffin’s Tennessee reunion. Do you think that’ll be brought up? Something tells me it’ll get a mention or two that week. Something also tells me that Ole Miss’ offense against Tennessee’s defense will be one of the more lopsided matchups in the SEC this year. Lost in the shuffle of the Kiffin-Tennessee storyline will be Lebby going against his former boss, Josh Heupel. Don’t be surprised when Ole Miss empties the bag to win in Knoxville.
Week 8: vs. LSU (L)
I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that John Emery has a career day in Oxford. Whether that’s busting loose for big runs or catching passes out of the backfield in Jake Peetz’s offense, I think Emery does his best Clyde Edwards-Helaire imitation. Ali Gaye and BJ Ojulari tag team a dominant effort from the LSU edge rushers and the prolific Ole Miss offense struggles to string scoring drives together in the second half. Corral performs better than he did in 2020 in Death Valley, but it’s not enough to keep West title hopes alive.
Week 9: at Auburn (L)
Here’s the problem for Ole Miss — timing. I think Bo Nix gets benched for TJ Finley going into Auburn’s bye week. That sets up a favorable matchup for him to pick apart a defense that lacks elite pass-rushers. A desperate Auburn team gets new life from Finley under center. This turns into an excellent back-and-forth showdown with Corral dealing at an NFL level against a top-notch Auburn secondary. But Corral picks on that group one too many times and a Smoke Monday pick-6 prevents Ole Miss from clinching bowl eligibility.
Week 10: vs. Liberty (W)
In the same season, Kiffin is returning to Tennessee and Hugh Freeze is returning to Oxford. What a time to be alive. It’s also a heck of a time to watch 2 elite quarterbacks battle it out. Former Auburn transfer Malik Willis won’t be afraid of SEC competition, and Freeze won’t be afraid to roll the dice early and often. This should be a thriller against a Liberty team that went 10-1 and returns 90% of last year’s production. But in the fourth quarter, Snoop Conner breaks free for a long touchdown run to spoil Freeze’s return to Oxford.
Week 11: vs. Texas A&M (L)
A&M is going to be able to beat teams in a variety of ways this year. They have balance and depth on offense that should be unlike anything we’ve seen from the Aggies in recent memory. Against Ole Miss, though, the backs take over. Isaiah Spiller and Devon Achane take turns breaking off long touchdown runs and Ole Miss finds itself playing behind from the jump. Like Auburn, it’s another game in which Corral does his best to keep pace, but A&M gets the stops it needs late to pull out a win.
Week 12: vs. Vanderbilt (W)
This ends up being the defensive performance that gives Ole Miss fans optimism about the future, especially on the defensive line. Demon Clowney and highly touted Tywone Malone get into the backfield several times and stall the Vandy offense. It’s a major bounce-back game for the defense.
Week 13: at MSU (W)
Let me just say that the fact that this game is back on Thanksgiving brings a smile to my face, as does thinking about watching this game 12 Hawaiian rolls deep. Year 1 of the Kiffin vs. Mike Leach rivalry was fantastic, even though it didn’t end with a viral moment like the previous 3 Egg Bowls (people don’t talk enough about Joe Moorhead’s “drag my yankee a– out of here” thing enough). I expect both teams to get into the 40s, which has never happened in this rivalry. A great, back-and-forth shootout is decided by … an Ealy kickoff return for 6. A late Knight interception (see what I did there?) puts it on ice and Ole Miss pulls out a wild win in Starkville.
2021 projection: 8-4 (4-4), 4th in SEC West
Perspective is important here. Some in Oxford might look at an 8-4 (4-4) mark and wonder if that’s good enough. They’ll say that the Freeze era teams had a higher ceiling and with Corral potentially off to the NFL at season’s end, losing in the Citrus Bowl would leave a bitter taste in the mouths of the Ole Miss faithful.
But as I often say with these projections, think about the big picture here. This would be another year to showcase Kiffin’s offense and in an extremely competitive league, Ole Miss would be able to avoid a losing SEC record and potentially clinch a 9th win. That hasn’t happened since 2015. Things also spiraled quickly after that.
Kiffin’s foundation looks a bit more solid. He still doesn’t have a roster full of guys he recruited yet. If Kiffin and Lebby engineer another top-15 offense, which seems likely unless the defensive improvement puts less pressure on the offense, Ole Miss will be moving in the right direction. If Durkin and Chris Partridge can’t produce a top-100 defense again, I’d be surprised if they got a Year 3.
If 2020 Ole Miss was tequila, perhaps 2021 Ole Miss is the after-dinner Kahlúa. Much like how that can complete a meal, Kiffin’s team is a more mature, well-rounded version of its 2020 self. Kahlúa will still fuel a nice, relaxed buzz, but it doesn’t turn into a nasty hangover.
Cheers to that.