Editor’s note: Saturday Down South’s annual Crystal Ball prediction series continues with Ole Miss. Coming Saturday: Texas A&M. Monday we shift to the SEC East, beginning with Florida.

Ole Miss fans got exactly what they wanted.

They finally got to go fishing in the coaching market pond and reel in a big-time fish. How it turned out was, in many ways, exactly what they could have hoped for. Did they get as splashy of a hire as possible? Probably. Did they get someone who is arguably a top 5 offensive mind in the sport? In my opinion, yes.

Lane Kiffin is going to have all the support possible to make things work in Oxford. All signs point to a much different experience than his last SEC head coaching gig at Tennessee. Why? Well, for starters, Kiffin is a decade older. His headlines are usually all in good fun instead of calling out coaches like Urban Meyer at National Signing Day.

Kiffin is different. The odds of him making Ole Miss nationally relevant for his on-field accomplishments seem more likely than the alternative. That’s a good thing.

The question, of course, is how long it’ll take and how high is that ceiling in the SEC West?

Lane and the QB situation

Ah, the well-documented quarterback situation. In case you haven’t heard, John Rhys Plumlee and Matt Corral are locked in a battle to become the starting quarterback … just as they were throughout last season. In a way, nothing has changed.

In another way, it’s an entirely different system to the one that Rich Rodriguez ran. That scheme fit Plumlee better than Corral. There’s some thinking that the reverse is true with Kiffin. Corral’s ability to push the ball downfield could allow for him to take the job and run with it. Granted, he would have benefitted much more from having a full spring, which wouldn’t have included Plumlee because he was supposed to be playing baseball.

Is it possible that Kiffin elects to use both quarterbacks? I wouldn’t rule out anything in 2020, but it’s also worth remembering that Kiffin isn’t really a 2-quarterback system guy. That’s not to say he won’t be willing to make a midseason switch if necessary, but Kiffin tends to put all his eggs into one basket from a development standpoint. That might not always be the popular choice, but don’t forget about the way he handled crowded quarterback rooms at Alabama with Blake Sims in 2014 and Jalen Hurts in 2016 (both of those quarterbacks were all-conference selections who earned SEC titles and Playoff berths).

If Kiffin does elect to go for Corral, who completed 59% of his passes for 1,362 yards last year, would we see Plumlee play receiver? Or would he seek other options to play quarterback? Who knows at this point. How Kiffin manages that dynamic even after the season starts will be worth monitoring.

Backfield built for greatness?

If you asked a casual college football fan to name the best running back duos in the country, they’d probably do the lazy thing — Chuba Hubbard and whoever his backup is … Travis Etienne and the guy backing him up. Maybe they’d say Najee Harris and Trey Sanders.

But dare I say, Jerrion Ealy and Snoop Conner should at least be part of that discussion. Sure, they’re only sophomores, and neither averaged 10 carries per game as freshmen last year. But as true freshmen, they combined for 1,234 rushing yards on 6.7 yards per carry in the nation’s toughest division, and they really came on strong in the last month of the season. That’s not easy to be that efficient from the jump. Granted, Rodriguez’s system was built on that ground game.

Having said that, let’s not forget who the offensive coordinator was the last time a running back won the Heisman Trophy. It was Kiffin. No, Ealy and Conner aren’t built to handle the same workload that Derrick Henry did, and 2015 Alabama had a better offensive line than 2020 Ole Miss. These Ole Miss backs are, however, going to be in positions to hit home runs in that offense (excuse the baseball pun for Ealy). I tend to think that a young pair of fresh legs is going to be extremely valuable in a season like this.

Ole Miss has 3 players with starting experience on an offensive line who paved the way for the nation’s No. 9 rushing offense last year. Yes, a big part of that was Plumlee, but Kiffin absolutely has a proven group of offensive linemen who should prevent this group from getting pushed around by the SEC elite.

Defensive concerns

As intriguing as the Ole Miss offense is, I’d say my expectations for the defense are much, much lower after a year a major improvement under Mike MacIntyre. Part of that is simple roster attrition. Ole Miss’ defense entered spring in the middle of the pack in terms of percentage of returning production. Ryder Anderson is the only returning starter back on that line, and he’s coming off a torn ACL.

In a year like this with players possibly in quarantine for multiple games, I worry about depth. I worry about how DJ Durkin and Chris Partridge will handle that.

I’ve been clear that I wasn’t crazy about those hires for a variety of reasons. And while I understand the potential recruiting benefits that Kiffin saw as a long-term play, I do wonder how they’ll handle the on-field issues that Ole Miss will face in a division that’s suddenly loaded with elite offensive minds. Will this year feel reminiscent of 2017 and 2018? In some ways, it definitely could. That is, NFL talent on offense can’t always bail out a porous defense.

But the key to Kiffin’s Year 1 being a major success comes down to how Durkin and Partridge handle a unit in transition.

Game-by-game predictions

Week 1: vs. Florida (L)

I wish we could see Dan Mullen’s return to Oxford with a capacity crowd. That would be something. Instead, a veteran Florida offense carves up Ole Miss defense and turns a competitive first half into a 2-score road victory to kick off 2020.

Week 2: at Kentucky (L)

Kentucky’s offensive line against Ole Miss’ defensive line is the big mismatch. The Wildcats have 3 legitimate preseason All-SEC candidates up front to complement a 4-headed rushing attack (including Terry Wilson). Kiffin’s first road game will turn into a frustrating one with his defense unable to string stops together. Ole Miss is forced into throwing situations late, and Mark Stoops’ defense puts the game on ice.

Week 3: vs. Alabama (L)

Sign me up for the first edition of Lane Kiffin vs. Nick Saban. You know that Kiffin will show nothing but respect to his former boss, but it’ll be an excuse to relive some of their best moments together. All I want is a comment like this from Kiffin:

As for the game, this could be a little trickier than the experts think. Kiffin knows Saban well. Darn well. This is also right before Alabama faces Georgia. Is it possible that the offensive game plan for the Crimson Tide is a little bit straightforward? Perhaps. Saban doesn’t want Kirby Smart getting a sneak peek. Kiffin, on the other hand, gets all sorts of creative. Ealy throwing out of the wildcat, Plumlee catching passes, etc. That allows Ole Miss to hang around … for a minute. The Alabama defense is too disciplined and after some early adjustments, it’s all Crimson Tide.

Week 4: at Arkansas (W)

In a battle of new coaches in the West, it’s actually Kiffin who’s searching for the first win (I have Arkansas beating MSU in Week 2). But yes, Kiffin does get on the board. Ole Miss shows up desperate. The sense of urgency is there to complement the offensive creativity. Arkansas hangs around thanks to a brilliant performance from Rakeem Boyd, but in the end, it’s too much Elijah Moore and the Ole Miss offense.

Week 5: vs. Auburn (L)

Auburn’s slow offensive start will turn around in a hurry thanks to the Ole Miss defense. Bo Nix has his biggest statistical performance ever against an SEC team in what turns out to be an awful day for the Ole Miss defense from start to finish. The good news for Ole Miss? This ends up being a breakout game for Jonathan Mingo.

Week 6: at Vanderbilt (W)

Ole Miss is going to be one of several SEC teams in this weird year that suddenly finds itself saying “the goal is to get to the bye week with multiple wins.” Against Vandy, that happens. The best defensive performance of the year for the Ole Miss defense is fueled by interceptions from both Keidron Smith and Jaylon Jones. After an 0-3 start, getting to 2-4 doesn’t sound so bad.

Week 7: Bye

Week 8: vs. South Carolina (L)

By Week 8, I think a South Carolina offense led by new offensive coordinator Mike Bobo finally finds its identity. An offense that looks vastly different than last year’s squad is able to actually establish a ground game en route to a high-scoring victory. A winnable game slips away from Ole Miss because of its inability to stop the bleeding in the 3rd quarter.

Week 9: at Texas A&M (W)

Let’s get weird. This year is going to inevitably have a few games that make us scratch our heads. Whether it’s a coach recognizing that an opposing team is depleted at a position group because of quarantines or just simply elite teams playing down to competition at times during a 10-game conference schedule, we’re going to get a handful of games like this one. A&M, a week removed from a physical game against Tennessee with perhaps an eye ahead to LSU, gets caught. Kiffin’s young, fresh squad shows up to College Station and proves to be a nightmare to defend for 60 minutes. The Aggies fall behind early and can never quite flip the switch against what’s easily Ole Miss’ most surprising defensive performance of the year. A&M suffers a major letdown and Kiffin celebrates his biggest SEC win ever.

Week 10: vs. Mississippi State (L)

Can we take a moment to appreciate how great the Egg Bowl will be as long as we have Kiffin vs. Mike Leach? That’s the type of entertainment this world needs. But unfortunately for Ole Miss, this new chapter of the Egg Bowl is the same story as the past 2 years. MSU’s offense finds a way to make some key plays late. Malik Heath winds up being the surprise star for MSU in a game that’s not decided until late. This one doesn’t have as memorable of an ending, though. Maybe that makes another Egg Bowl loss a bit easier to stomach?

Week 11: at LSU (W)

Wait, what? An LSU loss to Ole Miss? Here’s my thinking. I wonder how much motivation and gas will be left in the tank at this point for the Tigers. If LSU isn’t playing for a division title and with Playoff hopes are dashed because of the Florida loss, 1 of 2 things could happen. Either LSU has a rash of key players sit to avoid an injury in an otherwise meaningless game or the Tigers are feeling the effects of a 10-game SEC schedule and not in the right place physically from a depth standpoint. This will be one of those “inferior team catches the superior team at the perfect time” games. Kiffin unloads the entire bag of tricks for a young team playing like it has nothing to lose and pulls off one of the weirder upsets of the 2020 season.

2020 projection: 4-6, 6th in SEC West


What a strange year this would be.

On one hand, it’s a 6th-place finish in the West with another Egg Bowl loss and a whopping 0 home wins. There would be some crushing winnable games that slip away like South Carolina and Kentucky coupled with demoralizing losses to the likes of Auburn and Alabama that are humbling reminders of how long it’ll take to be nationally relevant again. That, on the surface, wouldn’t fire up the masses.

But on the other hand, it’d be nearly a .500 season in the SEC — a mark that Ole Miss hasn’t sniffed since 2015 — with wins against A&M and LSU. Oh, and it’d be a 4-1 road record.

If I’m an Ole Miss fan, I’m selling myself on the positive narrative. We’re talking about a program that last beat a non-Arkansas/Vanderbilt SEC team in the 2017 Egg Bowl. Last year was a 4-win season, but as I always say, Ole Miss had an average margin of defeat of 19 points against SEC teams in 2018. That number dropped to 4.4 in 2019. With a good amount of production back and an upgrade at head coach, there’s potential to make a little bit more noise than some might expect.

What do I expect? Kiffin will have a loud 4 wins in 2020.