When I settled on my top 5 quarterbacks in the SEC heading into 2023, Jaxson Dart didn’t make the cut.

I know, Ole Miss fans. I’m a hater. Clearly, I’m anti-Lane Kiffin and really just anti-Oxford.

I’m really not, though. I still can’t believe that they have a pickle martini available on The Square. Even when Ole Miss isn’t at peak levels like it was when I was in Oxford in 2018, I’ll still maintain that The Grove was one of the coolest college football experiences of my life.

See, no anti-Ole Miss agenda here.

I’m not really anti-Dart, either. I’m not out on him. I’m just not sold on him. At least not on the idea of him following in the footsteps of 2021 Matt Corral, who finished 7th in the Heisman Trophy voting with one of the best individual seasons in program history.

(I’ve never been crazy about the idea that Dart wore the same No. 2 that Corral wore. I know, I know. That was his number at USC, and he wore it throughout high school. Still, though. Read the room a little bit, no?)

To be fair, I am willing to concede that my post-spring prediction that Spencer Sanders would be Ole Miss’ starter looks unlikely at best. That’s after talking with people around the program who believe Dart has taken the next step, and as I’ll always say, Kiffin’s offense demands experience in the system more than the average person realizes.

Also to be fair, part of the reason I’m not sold on the Ole Miss signal-caller is because I didn’t think Kiffin was sold on him in 2022. It’s not just the portal additions that make me say that. We always knew that Ole Miss was going to need portal quarterbacks after A&M poached its 2023 signee and Luke Altmyer transferred to Illinois. The fact that Kiffin got someone like Walker Howard wasn’t the least bit surprising. The Sanders move, I’d argue, was different because of his pedigree and experience compared to Dart.

If you watched Ole Miss in 2022, you saw, at times, an exasperated Kiffin. Dart’s decision-making was an issue. Spencer Rattler (12) was the only SEC quarterback who threw more interceptions than Dart (11), and among SEC starters, Will Levis was the only one who had a worse interception per attempt rate (28.3) than Dart (32.9).

If you just look at Dart on paper, you’ll see that he had some solid raw numbers (8.2 yards per attempt, over 3,500 total yards). Drill down a bit, though. In the 7 games Ole Miss played against FBS programs with a winning record, Dart accounted for just 8 total touchdowns and he threw 7 interceptions (more on that later).

Think about why that’s frustrating for what Ole Miss was trying to do. It had a sensational ground attack led by one of the top running backs in America in Quinshon Judkins. It also had an inconsistent defense that could get the occasional takeaway (No. 48 in FBS) but wasn’t good enough to overcome costly mistakes.

Ah, but now is the part where you remind me that Dart didn’t turn the ball over all spring and that his turnover issues are in the past.

Now is also the part where I remind you that Kiffin instructed new defensive coordinator Pete Golding to stick with the base defense in the spring game. It was far from an “exotic” look on that side of the ball.

Another byproduct of Dart’s Year 1 struggles was that even with that prolific, multi-faceted run game, Ole Miss struggled to convert in the red zone (No. 98 in FBS in red zone scoring percentage). Dart, despite being one of the better rushing Power 5 quarterbacks, didn’t score with his legs until the bowl game. Given how RPO-heavy the offense is, it’s hard to fathom why a physical runner like Dart couldn’t create those opportunities.

In the red zone, Dart’s overall numbers were:

  • 15 rushes for 22 yards (No. 48 in SEC)
  • 1 rushing TD
  • 3 INTs (2nd worst in SEC)
  • 152.5 QB rating (No. 11 in SEC, min. 20 pass attempts)

That’s the biggest issue. Yes, you can point to other areas like the aforementioned defensive shortcomings, as well as a faithless kicking game (that’s the first time I’ve ever called someone’s kicking game “faithless,” but it plays).

What’s clear, though, is that Kiffin has seen the difference between good and great at a place like Ole Miss. His 2021 team, which set a program record for regular season wins, had a whole lot more “great” than the 2022 group led by Dart.

If Ole Miss was going to be great in 2022, Dart needed to tighten up. That red-zone pick in the 3rd quarter at LSU was a phenomenal play by Joe Foucha, but Dart threw it up for grabs instead of taking a sack. That was monumental in flipping the momentum that day.

It wasn’t that throwing it up for grabs was Dart’s default decision in the red zone. Go back to the end of the Alabama game.

After Judkins put on his cape and marched Ole Miss into the red zone to try and set up a potential go-ahead touchdown in the final minute — he accounted for 52 of the 61 yards on that drive — Dart’s red-zone woes surfaced. On 3rd-and-10, he didn’t target an open receiver sitting 5 yards short of the sticks with a 5-yard cushion. Instead, he tried to run through the Alabama defensive line and Byron Young delivered a catastrophic sack of the Ole Miss quarterback.

And on 4th-and-16 with the game on the line, Dart actually made a really nice throw, but on that down and distance against a Nick Saban defense that dropped 8 into coverage, those throwing windows were virtually non-existent.

That might come off as nit-picky, but if we’re talking about Dart getting the benefit of the doubt with preseason praise, that stuff matters. It’s hard to ignore his drop-off against FBS foes who had a winning record:

Dart 2022
vs. FBS non-winning record
vs. FBS winning record
Yards/pass attempt
QB rating
40-yard passes
Rushing yards/carry
Rushing yards/game

Mind you, that’s even excluding Dart’s numbers against FCS Central Arkansas. Pretty significant, no?

Corral didn’t have that kind of a gap against quality competition in Year 1. Don’t forget when he lit up Alabama for 405 scrimmage yards in that 63-48 shootout, and he was brilliant against a top-10 Indiana team in the Outback Bowl win.

And yes, maybe it’s not fair to hold Dart to the Corral standard. Some would argue that Dart will have a much better shot at living up to that this year.

A couple things are worth remembering, though. While Corral had the high interception totals under Kiffin in 2020, 11 of those 14 picks came in 2 games. That season, Corral was also a 71% passer who averaged 10.2 yards/attempt. He threw 29 touchdown passes in 10 games, and in 3 fewer games, Corral had 16 passes of 40 yards compared to 7 for Dart.

There was more meat on the bone with Corral’s first season as a starter. Hence, why Kiffin didn’t bench him during or after those 2 disastrous starts, and why he started 2021 as an All-SEC quarterback and not as someone trying to beat out a pair of transfers.

Is it possible that Dart finishes 2023 as an All-SEC quarterback? Absolutely. Kiffin has had all-conference quarterbacks at season’s end 4 times during the Playoff era (2 at Alabama, 1 at FAU, 1 at Ole Miss). It wouldn’t be an earth-shattering revelation if Dart finished there.

But that climb is steeper than some might realize.