Our 13th annual preseason Top 25: No. 25 Ole Miss has plenty of firepower to work with
For the last 12 years, the American-Statesman's sports staff has spent July breaking down our own preseason Top 25 rankings. Last year's eventual College Football Playoff semifinalists ranked first, second, third and ninth in our 2020 poll.
No. 25 Mississippi
Like him or loath him, Lane Kiffin gets results. Ole Miss' controversial coach has never shied away from shaking up the status quo, especially in the oft-stodgy world of the SEC. He has a 66-39 record in a career that includes both college and NFL stops, including a 5-5 mark in his first season at Ole Miss. That .500 record in 2020 doesn’t do Kiffin’s work justice, however; Ole Miss has been in the NCAA netherworld since sanctions in 2017 and the resignation of scandal-plagued coach Hugh Freeze. Kiffin righted the ship a year ago with a record-setting offense and led the Rebels to four SEC wins for the first time since 2015. Matt Corral looks poised for stardom and may just be the SEC's best quarterback, but is that enough to boost Ole Miss back to football royalty in the Deep South?
Ole Miss wasn't ranked in our preseason poll last year. The Rebels didn't finish ranked nationally.
About the Rebels
2020: 5-5 overall, 4-5 in the SEC — fifth place in the West Division. They beat Indiana 26-20 in the Outback Bowl.
Coach: Lane Kiffin (66-39 overall at Tennessee, USC, Florida Atlantic and Ole Miss). This is his second season at Ole Miss. He also has a 5-15 record in the NFL.
Returning starters: 18 (8 offense, 10 defense)
Shoes to fill: WR Elijah Moore (Jets, 2nd round); G Royce Newman (Packers, 4th); TE Kenny Yeboah (Jets, UFA); LB Jacquez Jones (transfer)
Ole Miss was surprisingly quiet this offseason. The Rebels will miss Jones, who led the team in tackles last season but announced in early June that he's transferring. But virtually every other member of last year's two-deep on defense is back along with most of the crucial players on offense and all the key members of the coaching staff. Blake Gideon is the exception; the Leander native and former Texas safety served as Ole Miss' special teams coordinator last year but joined Steve Sarkisian's Longhorns staff this spring. ... As for transfer arrivals, keep an eye on WR Jalen Knox, who caught 77 passes for 1,031 yards and four touchdowns in three years at Missouri, and OL Orlando Umana, who was an all-conference center for Utah. Knox will help replace Moore. ... Kiffin has Rebels' recruiting efforts trending up; Ole Miss' 2021 class ranked 18th nationally and Kiffin has already reeled in a 2022 pledge from Zxavian Harris, the state's top-rated defensive lineman who picked the Rebels over Alabama, LSU and Georgia. Two junior college defensive linemen from this year's class, Jamond Gordon and Isaiah Iton, look primed for immediate action and Bralon Brown, a four-star receiver from Florida, also has a shot at making a quick impact in four- or five-receiver sets.
Passing: Matt Corral 231-326-3,337, 29/14 (led team)
Rushing: Jerrion Ealy 147-745-9 (led team), QB Matt Corral 112-506-4 (2nd), Snoop Conner 93-421-8 (3rd)
Receiving: Dontario Drummond 25-417-7 (3rd), Jonathan Mingo 27-379-3 (4th), Braylon Sanders 15-376-4 (5th)
Tackles: DB Keidron Smith 64 (2nd), DB A.J. Finley 62 (T-3rd), LB Lakia Henry 62 (T-3rd), LB MoMo Sanogo 60 (5th)
Sacks: DL Sam Williams 4 (led team), OLB Cedric Johnson 3 (2nd), LB Lakia Henry 2.5 (T-3rd)
Interceptions: DB A.J. Finley 3 (led team)
Offense: RB Jerrion Ealy (2nd team)
How the pandemic impacted the Rebels: Like every program in the nation, Ole Miss fought a season-long battle against the disruptions caused by the pandemic. The Rebels dealt with their share of COVID-19 absences throughout the abbreviated season, but the impact came to a head in the run-up to the Outback Bowl. Ole Miss watched its depth thin out to alarming numbers at several positions prior to the game, especially at receiver. The Rebels ended up beating Indiana despite just six scholarship wideouts.
Corralling yards: The Rebels made history in the first season of Kiffin’s version of the spread offense. Ole Miss set a school record with 555.5 yards of offense per game, which ranked No. 3 in the nation. The Rebels also broke the SEC record for total offense in conference games with 562.4 yards per contest, which topped LSU's mark of 550 set in 2019. In the process, Corral became just the fourth SEC player ever to finish as the NCAA leader in total offense (384.9 ypg), joining Pat Sullivan (Auburn, 1970), Rex Grossman (Florida, 2001) and Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M, 2012). Want to make SEC defensive coordinators sweat more than usual this summer? Tell them that Ole Miss returns 30 total letter winners from that offense, including four starters on the offensive line and its entire running back corps.
Arch rivals: Ole Miss and Texas rarely cross paths on the recruiting trail, but the two schools are among the contenders for Arch Manning, the latest passing prodigy from the famed football family. Manning, an incoming high school junior in New Orleans and the nation's top-ranked recruit for the 2023 class, has Oxford roots and has spent a lifetime under the tutelage of his uncles Peyton and Eli as well as his grandfather Archie. Archie and Eli Manning are former Ole Miss QBs. But Texas hosted Arch on an official visit last month.
2020 national stat rankings
Where Ole Miss ranked nationally in various statistical categories last season — and how the Rebels ranked in 2019.
Scoring: 14th (2019 — 82nd, +68 spots)
Scoring defense: 117th (59th, -58)
Total offense: 3rd (26th, +23)
Total defense: 126th (85th, -41)
Passing: 7th (102nd, +95)
Pass defense: 125th (120th, -5)
Rushing: 26th (9th, -17)
Rush defense: 101st (42nd, -59)
Sacks: 98th (25th, -73)
Interceptions: 68th (61st, -7)
Red zone offense: 104th (50th, -54)
Red zone defense: 100th (97th, -3)
Turnover margin: T-97th (T-53rd, -44)
Time of possession: 105th (104th, -1)
Our Top 25 — so far
No. 25: Ole Miss: Rebels are banking on Lane Kiffin's coaching bounce-back
Our No. 24 team. Want a hint?
This school produced four NFL draft picks this year — including the final pick of the first round.