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Vanderbilt Football 2022 Opponent Preview: Ole Miss

Transfer portal gone wild!

Allstate Sugar Bowl - Baylor v Ole Miss Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

The Opponent: The University of Mississippi RebelLandBearAckbarSharks

Date: October 8, 2022

Where: Nashville

Last year: 10-3 (6-2 SEC.) Somehow, they didn’t feel like a 10-win team, probably because from October on, they won seven games and none of them by more than two touchdowns and that includes a game against Vanderbilt. They also got drilled by Bama and also flubbed a trip to Auburn.

Series record: Ole Miss leads, 54-36-2. This honestly isn’t as one-sided as most of Vanderbilt’s annual opponents, and in fact from 2005-12, Vanderbilt won six of eight. Since 2013, though, the Rebels have won seven of nine.

The last time we saw these guys: Vanderbilt went to Oxford on November 20 of last year and... things didn’t go too badly? Vanderbilt lost 31-17 in what looked like one of those old school Bobby Johnson games where it didn’t ever feel like the Commodores were going to win against a top-10 opponent on the road, but they didn’t embarrass themselves either, and at the tail end of a 2-10 season it was hard to feel too bad about that.

Head Coach

Lane Kiffin, professional internet meme, the guy who once spurned Tennessee after a single season to go to USC, then got fired on the tarmac after a 3-2 start in 2013 — then resurrected his career as Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator, had a solid 27-13 run at Florida Atlantic, and now is 15-8 in two years at Ole Miss. Oh, yeah, and his second season saw ten wins and a Sugar Bowl berth. And then he went wild in the transfer portal.

Offense

At least the offensive line is stable! Gone, though, are the starting quarterback (Matt Corral), the top four rushers (Jerrion Ealy, Snoop Conner, Corral, and Henry Parrish), and the top three receivers (Dontario Drummond, Jahcour Pearson, and Braylon Sanders.) Three or four starters do return on the offensive line, though, so that should at least give the Rebels some stability as they work through all the Portal acquisitions.

That starts at quarterback, where USC transfer Jaxson Dart, who completed 61.9 percent of his passes for 1353 yards for 9 touchdowns and 5 interceptions as a true freshman, will probably claim the job ahead of Luke Altmyer, last year’s backup. (The way to read this situation, as usual, is that if Lane Kiffin were confident in Altmyer, he probably wouldn’t have gone out and gotten a top quarterback from the Portal.) At running back, it’s former five-star Zach Evans, who ran for 1063 yards and 9 touchdowns in two seasons at TCU, and SMU transfer Ulysses Bentley, who’s rushed for 1559 yards and 15 touchdowns over three seasons. Receiver will be less transfer-dependent with Jonathan Mingo and Dannis Jackson back, but the Rebels do have a trio of big-time transfers coming in Malik Heath (Mississippi State), Jaylon Robinson (UCF), and Jordan Watkins (Louisville.)

There’s obviously a lot of talent here, and the replacements at running back and receiver are probably a wash — so the big question on offense is whether Kiffin can get similar production out of Dart as he did out of Corral. That’s a big ask, of course, but even getting 80 percent of the production will put another ten-win season on the table.

Defense

For better or worse, the Ole Miss defense is more of a known quantity entering 2022 — some big players (including both starting linebackers, Chance Campbell and Mark Robinson, and havoc-inducing defensive end Sam Williams) are gone, but the defensive backfield returns more or less intact.

The Ole Miss defense went from being a disaster area in 2020 to being something close to a strength by the end of 2021. After getting blown up for 42 points by Alabama and 51 by Arkansas (the latter, somehow, was a win), the defense gave up just 20.8 ppg over the season’s final eight games. The Rebels went from allowing 5.3 yards per rush to 4.5 in 2021 — very good. They also allowed 230 yards per game through the air — just fine in modern football.

That said, this is a defense relatively devoid of standouts — and Ole Miss also saw co-defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin depart over the offseason. Ole Miss needs to find some pieces up front. Is three-time All-MAC selection Troy Brown ready for the SEC?

Special Teams

A big unknown. Ole Miss will have a new kicker and punter this year — the former because Caden Costa got suspended for a positive test for a banned substance, the latter because punter Mac Brown graduated. Jonathan Cruz is in from Charlotte as presumably a one-year fix at kicker. Punter I guess is Aussie Fraser Masin, the only punter I see listed on the roster.

The return game, handled last year by Jerrion Ealy (kickoffs) and Dontario Drummond (punts), is also up in the air.

Outlook

At least this year, Ole Miss functions as a test case for the viability of almost completely relying on the transfer portal to plug holes. The offense is almost completely new and it’s almost completely being filled, in all likelihood, by players that Lane Kiffin pulled out of the transfer portal. The degree here is actually somewhat jarring — either Kiffin didn’t have faith in any of the players already in the program or this is by design, and the long-term goal is short-term fixes. The defense sees less turnover, but also probably isn’t good enough to carry the team if there’s any significant dropoff on offense.

That means that there’s a lot of volatility here. Aside from Alabama, who visits Oxford in November, Ole Miss probably doesn’t have a game on the schedule that they can’t win (they draw Kentucky at home as their rotating East opponent, and a trip to Georgia Tech is their only nonconference game of note.) Trips to the trifecta of LSU, Texas A&M, and Arkansas aren’t going to be easy, and while I probably think they’ll be favored over Kentucky, Auburn, and Mississippi State at home, none of those are gimmes. Anything between 6-6 and 10-2 is realistic; I’d probably split the difference and say 8-4.