I’m guilty.

When Jaxson Dart announced that he was transferring from USC to Ole Miss, I penciled him in as the next great Lane Kiffin quarterback.

You read that correctly. I jumped the part where I debated whether he’d be the Ole Miss starting quarterback. I, like many, just started jumping into his 2022 projections. Could Dart hit 35 touchdown passes en route to a potential All-SEC season? How high should Dart start off in ranking SEC quarterbacks? Does Dart elevate Ole Miss’ floor in the SEC West?

At no point during Dart’s well-documented transfer decision did I wonder whether he’ll be able to beat out Luke Altmyer?

I’m guilty of overlooking Altmyer. He’s the one with experience in Kiffin’s offense, and he’s the one whom Kiffin flipped from Florida State late in the 2021 cycle to make him Ole Miss’ highest-rated in-state quarterback recruit of the 21st century (H/T Nick Suss).

That’s exactly why I feel guilty for jumping the gun and assuming that Dart would beat out Altmyer to win the job.

To be clear, I’d still bet on Dart, who was rated the No. 3 transfer this cycle by 247sports, will become the Ole Miss starter. But after further consideration, this does indeed feel like a real battle that doesn’t have an obvious winner.

Why? Let’s actually go back to the Sugar Bowl.

If you watched that game, you saw Altmyer mostly struggle in relief of an injured Matt Corral. It wasn’t a passing of the torch moment. Instead, it was perhaps a grim realization of what life in a post-Corral world could look like. Side by side, we saw Altmyer have a significant drop-off both with making reads in the passing game and with his decisiveness as a runner.

The final box score told the story of Altmyer’s frustrating night. He was 15-for-28 for 174 yards with 1 touchdown pass and 2 interceptions. He also took 7 sacks and led just 1 scoring drive.

To be fair, though, most true freshmen would’ve struggled in relief against that Baylor defense. The decorated Caleb Williams was 9-for-18 for 142 yards without a touchdown pass and 2 interceptions in a 2-score loss to Baylor. Even Corral started the night just 2-for-6 for 10 yards with an interception before he suffered his game-ending ankle injury.

At least Altmyer dropped a dime to Braylon Sanders for a score in the second half once he settled in:

By the way, that was part of a 3rd quarter in which Altmyer was 6-for-8 for 101 yards and that score. Again, that was against a top-10 defense. Not bad for a true freshman with 9 career pass attempts.

He actually should’ve had 2 scoring drives, but Ole Miss couldn’t convert a 35-yard field goal to take the lead in a 7-7 game. Instead, Baylor scored a touchdown on the next possession and then picked off Altmyer to set up a short field for another score that ultimately put the game away.

Welcome to the big-time. Mistakes are magnified.

Mistakes can also make the “rush to judgment” crowd, which I’m guilty of being part of at times, connect the dots. In this case, a post-Sugar Bowl decision to pursue Dart in the transfer portal was seen by many as a sign that Kiffin wasn’t fully on board with Altmyer taking over. What’s easy to forget was that with Corral leaving for the NFL, John Rhys Plumlee transferring to UCF and Ole Miss not signing a 2022 quarterback recruit, that room was thin. Kiffin likely was going to dip into the portal regardless. After all, he is the “portal king.”

Let’s also remember a key element that Altmyer has working in his favor against his 2021 classmate Dart. A year of experience in that offense is valuable. Very valuable.

When Kiffin first took over at Ole Miss, Corral struggled to learn the offense. He was “so pissed” that he kept making mistakes within the scheme that Kiffin and former Ole Miss offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby incorporated. He wasn’t mastering the concepts within the allotted practice time. That led to Corral beginning 5:30 a.m. film sessions with grad assistant Matt Holecek.

This belief that Kiffin runs a quarterback-friendly offense unfairly implies that it’s easy to grasp. It wasn’t for Corral, who had run 2 different offenses in his first 2 years at Ole Miss. The Kiffin/Lebby system involves reading complex coverages, operating at a high tempo, showing the ability to stretch the field, always having a clear explanation why something was being run, etc.

There’s by no means a guarantee that Dart will master those concepts. Shoot, there’s no guarantee that Altmyer is comfortable with them, either, though this is the same guy who would text his high school coach film and play ideas at 1 a.m. when he was a star at Starkville High School.

Had Corral actually stayed on the sidelines instead of playing hurt in the regular season, we would probably have a better idea about Altmyer’s ceiling instead of making sweeping declarations from facing a top-10 defense in the Sugar Bowl. That didn’t happen, though.

It’s worth noting that we’ve also never seen Dart face a top-20 defense at the FBS level. The only 1 of the 6 teams Dart faced that finished ranked in the AP Top 25 was BYU, which held the true freshman to 7.1 yards per attempt without a single completion of 20 yards.

I say that not to knock Dart, who could end up being everything Ole Miss fans hope for. It’s just key context to remember as we discuss this battle.

It is indeed a battle, and not just because Kiffin would like to avoid any scenario in which Altmyer transferred out of an already thin quarterback room. That’s another thing to keep in mind. If Kiffin starts Altmyer, he doesn’t have to worry about Dart transferring immediately because he already used his 1-time undergraduate exemption for immediate eligibility. Dart could theoretically lose the battle to Altmyer and still be essentially locked in to Ole Miss for another 2 seasons at the earliest. That is, if he’s seeking immediate playing time elsewhere.

The question that might come up is “well why would Dart come to Ole Miss unless he was promised he’d be the starter?” That’s not how this works. If it did and that leaked out in any way, that entire quarterback room would be on the first flight out. I don’t believe Kiffin promised Dart anything more than an opportunity, which he wasn’t going to have if he stuck around at USC, where Lincoln Riley brought the aforementioned Williams with him from Oklahoma.

If you think that Kiffin’s next quarterback will be determined by who throws the prettiest deep ball or who was the higher-rated recruit, you’re mistaken. Remember in 2020 when he didn’t go with the crowd favorite Plumlee because he was limited as a thrower? Remember at Alabama when Blake Sims surprisingly beat out Jake Coker in 2014? Remember in 2016 when Jalen Hurts became the guy instead of elder, more decorated recruits Blake Barnett and Cooper Bateman?

(Yes, I understand Kiffin wasn’t in charge at Alabama. But you better believe he had significant influence on those decisions as the primary play-caller.)

Time and again, Kiffin has gone to the beat of his own drum with picking a starting quarterback. Maybe that’ll lead to Altmyer winning the job and putting up video game numbers. Or maybe we’ll see Dart win the battle and pick up right where Corral left off. Either way, don’t be surprised if this goes down to the wire.

I don’t feel guilty suggesting that.