1. So, another go-around for Lane Kiffin in the SEC. He takes over a program in Ole Miss that had its fair share of ups and downs in the 2010s. What do you see as Kiffin’s biggest challenge in Year 1?
Andrew Spanel: That’s a good question. Ole Miss has quite a bit of talent already, so the key will be having them play to their potential. They sort of lost their edge during the Matt Luke era as they began to settle near the bottom of the SEC West so Lane Kiffin will be tasked with bringing some of that swagger back. Of course, his mere presence will bring excitement to the program, but the Rebels lost a lot of close games last year. If they can possibly snag a couple wins in games they aren’t favored in and win the Egg Bowl, they’ll be back on track.
Julian Mitchell: This team goes as the defense goes. They’ve put up some flashy offensive performances and numbers the past couple of seasons and there’s no reason why that should stop with Kiffin and Jeff Lebby at the helm. The offense hasn’t been greatly outshining the defense in EVERY game, but there have been more times than not where they’ve needed better pitching and defense as opposed to run support.
Robert O’Neill: I think the biggest challenge is the same as every coach’s biggest challenge this season: It’s been a long, bizarre, unprecedented offseason. Practice schedules have been weird, team meetings haven’t been regular, etc. How does any program overcome that, let alone a program with a first-year head coach? I think that’s going to be the thing to monitor all year long.
2. John Rhys Plumlee flew a little under the radar last season, but now the sophomore quarterback is building off a pretty solid freshman year. What do you expect out of Plumlee in Year 2 at the helm?
Andrew Spanel: Based on reports from our friends over at Red Cup Rebellion, Matt Corral actually appears to be the favorite to win the starting job at quarterback. However, Plumlee is too good not to play at some point. He led the team in rushing with over 1000 yards and is one of the more exciting players in the SEC. I fully expect a two quarterback system, which is just fine in this case.
Julian Mitchell: I agree with Andrew. I think we’ll see a two-headed attack that will have teams on their heels all season.
Josh Rothenberg: While Corral seems to be in line to start, Plumlee will have a huge impact on the Rebels offense this year. New offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby likely will have the Ole Miss offense throwing the ball down the field a lot more than Rich Rodriguez, which plays more towards Corral’s strengths. If the staff can find the right balance between the two, which isn’t always easy, this offense could have even the best SEC defenses on their heels.
Robert O’Neill: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using two quarterbacks, especially in a year like this one. Plumlee is good, Corral is good. It’s a good problem to have.
3. Ole Miss had the worst passing defense in the SEC last year based on YPG/a and second-worst in terms of Comp%/a. Do you see any sort of improvement on the horizon this coming season?
Andrew Spanel: On the whole, the defense should be pretty darn solid based on some of the talent they get back. Jon Haynes and Keidron Smith in the secondary both have another year under them, and they should be helped by the rest of the squad if they can once again get pressure on opposing quarterbacks. To be honest though, I think the Rebels’ D should fare better this year since the SEC doesn’t appear to have any truly great quarterbacks this season unlike last year with Tua and Joe Burrow.
Julian Mitchell: I see at least slight improvement on the horizon with the departure of possibly the two best passers and passing schemes in SEC West history in Tagovailoa and Burrow. But with Kyle Trask being many pundits’ choice for best returning passer in the league, we’ll get a feel for how this pass D will look right out of the gate in week one when the Rebels face Florida.
Josh Rothenberg: Only way to go is up, right? They should get better despite losing two starters and I have a lot of confidence in Charlie Partridge and, to a lesser extent DJ Durkin, to help fix the issues at the back end. As mentioned, having to go up against a less talented group of quarterbacks should help as well. Junior Keidron Smith has good size and flashed a lot of promise last season, including being named to the PFF SEC Team of the Week for his efforts vs LSU. If he can keep growing and become a true #1 corner, Ole Miss should be able to hold up *relatively* well on defense.
Robert O’Neill: I think Julian made a great point in pointing out that they’ll improve just by merit of Tua, Burrow, Justin Jefferson, Ja’Marr Chase, Henry Ruggs, and Jerry Jeudy being out of the picture. Also, there IS nowhere to go but up. In the first year of a new head coach, generally being the worst in the conference at something is a focal point of something to fix year over year, so it’ll be interesting to see what Lane does.
4. Who’s one player you expect to break out this season on either side of the ball?
Andrew Spanel: There are a lot of players who might break out on offense, but running back Jerrion Ealy has some hype after a freshman campaign with over 700 yards rushing. He also handled kickoff returns last year for Ole Miss, so the athleticism is obvious. He figures to be part of a backfield committee, but if you’re looking for someone to get fans out of their seats, then it could be Ealy.
Julian Mitchell: If he ends up being ruled eligible, UGA transfer Otis Reese should slot right into a starting safety role and improve the secondary. On offense, you could say Elijah Moore has already broken out, but I expect him to become more of a name around the country this season.
Josh Rothenberg: While everyone knows Elijah Moore, I think his teammate and fellow receiver, Jonathan Mingo, could be a name that football fans are very aware of after this season. Mingo has elite size for a receiver, and with very good speed to go along with it. He could be the biggest beneficiary of the new offense for the Rebels in 2020.
Robert O’Neill: Defensively, it feels like it could be a big year for Deantre Prince. The corner had two interceptions in his freshman season and if I think the pass defense is going to improve, it’s only fair to think the pieces on the defense will improve as well.
5. What is your prediction for the Rebels in 2020?
Andrew Spanel: 3-7
Julian Mitchell: 4-6
Josh Rothenberg: 5-5
Robert O’Neill: 4-6