After the longest and most memorable offseason of all time, SEC football has finally arrived. The conference kicks off with a bang on Saturday as all 14 teams are in action, beginning with Lane Kiffin’s Ole Miss Rebels (2019: 4-8, 2-6 SEC) against Dan Mullen’s fifth-ranked Florida Gators (2019: 11-2, 6-2 SEC).
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The Gators enter the season with the most hype around the program in quite some time. Their #5 ranking is the highest ranking Florida has attained since the penultimate poll of the 2012 season. It’s the first time Florida has been ranked in the top 5 for their first game of the season since opening the 2009 season atop the AP Poll as defending national champions.
Can the Gators capitalize on the other SEC powers seemingly taking a step back this season? Alabama lost Tua Tagovailoa, Henry Ruggs, and Jerry Jeudy to the NFL, LSU lost Joe Burrow, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, and Justin Jefferson to the NFL while Ja’Marr Chase chose to opt out of this season, Georgia quarterback Jamie Newman opted out and the Bulldogs are still awaiting JT Daniels’ medical clearance after his torn ACL prior to his transfer.
On the other hand, Kyle Trask comes into the season as the SEC’s leading returning quarterback, reflected by his placement on the Preseason All-SEC First Team last week. Trask finished the 2019 season with 25 touchdowns to seven interceptions and just under 3,000 passing yards. Trask was joined on the First Team by tight end Kyle Pitts, who hauled in 54 passes last season for the Gators and looks to build on that connection this season. Pitts will likely see even more involvement in the offense this season, as over 2,000 of Trask’s passing yards last year went to Van Jefferson, Freddie Swain, Josh Hammond, or Tyrie Cleveland, all of whom either graduated or went to the NFL. Going up against an Ole Miss team that allowed the most passing yards per game in the entire conference last season by a wide margin should be a good opportunity for Trask to get in tune with Pitts, but also prop up some of his other receiving targets.
If nothing else, the Lane Kiffin Era at Ole Miss should be memorable. Following a three year run at Florida International, Kiffin finds himself back at the helm of an SEC school. The fact that his debut comes against Florida adds even more fuel to the fire, all things considered. Like him or not, Kiffin will most likely provide better results than Matt Luke, who accumulated a paltry 15-21 record over three seasons, including 6-18 in SEC play. The Rebels never finished higher than sixth in the division under Luke, and never seemed to display any sort of progress.
This year certainly feels like it will be a transitional season for Kiffin and Ole Miss, as the extended offseason and all-SEC schedule likely didn’t do the program any favors under a first year head coach.
It’s not all bad for Ole Miss, though. Running back and return specialist Jerrion Ealy has the potential to be one of the conference’s most dynamic and exciting players. Ealy averaged 6.9 yards per rush last season and found the end zone six times, a very strong freshman campaign.
Ole Miss also returns both quarterbacks from last season: Matt Corral and John Rhys-Plumlee. Kiffin has not yet named a started so it’s likely that both quarterbacks will see playing time, likely with different packages designed for each. Plumlee rushed for over 1,000 yards last season, and that type of versatility under center can always find the field.
Despite Ole Miss’ offense having a few bright spots, the Gators will simply be too much to handle on both sides of the ball and should be able to pick up a rather comfortable victory.
Florida 35, Ole Miss 10