By Billy Watkins
Ole Miss fans are filling the message boards with warnings for the players and coaches: Beware of Saturday night’s opponent, Vanderbilt.
Some say the Rebels are jinxed against the Commodores. Surely, this dates back to a stretch beginning in 2005 when Vandy won 6 of 8 against some not-so-dandy Rebel teams. For perspective, consider that present-day Ole Miss quarterback Jaxson Dart was 2 years old in 2005.
Others contend that this is a perfect time for a letdown after winning three consecutive SEC games and Texas A&M looming Nov. 4.
They point out that Vandy is coming off a bye week, which allowed them time to rest and draw up a few new wrinkles to throw at the Rebels.
They also note that the Commodores gave Georgia and Missouri fits in recent weeks, though they lost both games by 17.
Here are the facts: Ole Miss has won 8 of the last 10 meetings. In head coach Lane Kiffin’s three years of facing the Commodores, his teams won all three by an average of 23.7 points.
Vandy is 2 -6 and a 25-point underdog.
I just don’t believe Kiffin will allow the Commodores to come into Vaught-Hemingway Stadium — 34 years to the day that Chucky Mullins was injured against Vandy — and spoil a season that has the Rebels 6-1 and ranked 11th.
Oh, it might be interesting all the way to the fourth quarter. Vandy can be pesky. But Kiffin finally has the program on the path he’s sought since accepting the job. It’s certainly not where he intends to take it, but great strides have been made.
This team has some depth. It also has a defense that is improving each week under the guidance of coordinator Pete Golding. It is faster and more physical than we’ve seen around Oxford in years.
And this team seems to find a way to win. Whether it’s overcoming a 9-point deficit in the fourth quarter, then breaking up a pass in the end zone on the game’s final play to beat LSU. Or outscoring Arkansas 10-0 in the final seven minutes to win 27-20. Or methodically whipping Auburn — on the road at night — 28-21.
All of this goes back to Kiffin, who has been planting these seeds since he arrived in 2020.
If you ever want to know what a coach is telling his team, listen to what the players say to the media.
Ole Miss players talk about going 1-0 every week and about preparing for every opponent with the same focus and energy. They talk about not panicking when things aren’t going great.
Kiffin’s message when the offense was stuck in neutral for most of the second quarter against Auburn: “Stay the course. It’ll pop,” he told them. And it did.
They talk about the fourth quarter and how they’ve worked since last January to make that their time to shine.
Ole Miss is outscoring opponents 89-41 in the fourth quarter. Last year, opponents had the upper hand 75-69.
“I think we’re very comfortable in situations where we’re behind in the fourth quarter,” Dart said recently.
And while the team has improved, so has Kiffin. Coaching is like any other job. Experience can be the greatest teacher.
Yes, he’s still leaning heavily on analytics and has gone for it on fourth down 20 times this season and converted 14. But he also appears to make more decisions based on the flow of the game. He explained at his weekly press conference why the Rebels ran the ball 56 times and threw only 18 passes against Auburn.
“We just try to do whatever it is to win that game to get to 1-0,” he said. “I think that’s kind of different than years ago for me where I would say we’re just going to do what we do … I’m just trying to win the game. Once we got the lead, we played to our defense.”
Such decisions build trust between coach and players.
And the Rebels would not be 6-1 without Kiffin’s proficient handling of the transfer portal. He’s improved in that area, too.
He understands that success in college football depends more than ever on standout quarterback play. So he stacked that room.
One year after signing Dart out of USC, he brought in Spencer Sanders, who started 41 games for Oklahoma State and threw for 9,553 yards and 67 touchdowns. He also added Walker Howard, who was rated the No. 1 dual-threat QB in the 2022 class. He spent one redshirt year at LSU.
When evaluating portal prospects, Kiffin and his staff are diving deeper into a player’s character and how he might fit in with current players.
“I call it the Patriot way,” he said, referring to coach Bill Belichick’s style of building an NFL roster in New England. “It’s kind of really evaluating the free agents you bring in, and how they’re going to work with your culture and what you have. We continue to move that up the level of importance, along with obviously playmaking ability.”
If you look closely at his portal signings, he’s not always going after players from top tier programs.
Safety John Saunders is third on the team in tackles (35) and has two interceptions. He played previously at Miami of Ohio.
Linebacker Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste is sixth in tackles (28) and displayed his speed and savvy while breaking up a pass at the goal line on the next-to-last play against LSU. He came to Ole Miss from Central Florida.
Defensive back Daijahn Anthony is seventh in tackles (26), has one interception and plays with an edge. He is perhaps best known for breaking up a pass in the end zone to clinch the win over LSU. He also had a jarring hit and forced fumble on quarterback Jayden Daniels in that game.
Anthony played for Hugh Freeze at Liberty. When asked during preseason camp if he looked forward to facing Freeze’s Auburn team, he answered: “Yes, can’t wait to beat him.”
Defensive lineman Isaac Ukwu is 10th in tackles (22). Ole Miss signed him out of James Madison.
Receiver Tre Harris, despite missing time early in the season after undergoing surgery on his leg, has 21 receptions for 469 yards and 6 touchdowns. He came from Louisiana Tech.
It’s scary to imagine where this team would be without 2022 portal signees such as receiver Jordan Watkins, defensive lineman Jared Ivey, running back Ulysses Bentley IV, linebackers Khari Coleman and Ladarius Tennison, along with several others.
Which brings us to the question: Where would Ole Miss be at this point without Lane Kiffin?
My guess: All the hand-wringing over Vanderbilt would be much more legitimate.