After a disappointing start to the 2020 campaign, Kentucky will return home this weekend and at Kroger Field they will be hosting the Ole Miss Rebels and a familiar face. Lane Kiffin is officially back in the SEC and he has taken over a program that is in need of a rebuild, but there was plenty of skill talent left behind by the previous staff.
Both Ole Miss and Kentucky will be looking to avoid the dreaded 0-2 start in SEC play when they meet for the midday kickoff at The Kroge. Kiffin is bringing with him an explosive offense tagged with a defense that could be the worst in the SEC under former Maryland head coach D.J. Durkin. The Rebels will want to turn this into a shootout.
Let’s break it all down as football returns to the Bluegrass.
Nuts and Bolts
Lane Kiffin has been around big time football his entire life thanks to his father Monte who served as a defensive coordinator in the NFL for decades. This allowed the former Fresno State quarterback to get a fast start to his coaching career and it certainly didn’t hurt when a guy by the name of Pete Carroll hired him to coach tight ends at USC when he was just 25 years old. A few years later he was calling plays for the Trojans and that led Al Davis to making him the head coach of the Oakland Raiders when he was just 31.
On this date in 2008, Lane Kiffin sent Sebastian Janikowski out to attempt a 76-yard field goal. ?
— Funhouse (@BackAftaThis) September 28, 2020
His tenure in the NFL was a short and quick dumpster fire, but it allowed the 33-year-old to become the head coach of the University of Tennessee in 2009 and we all know what happened there. Kiffin moved out to USC again in 2010 and after just 43 games he was fired on an airport tarmac in the middle of the 2013 season. Nick Saban would soon make him his first major reclamation project as he called plays at Alabama for three seasons before being fired just prior to the 2016 national championship game.
Kiffin has lived a coaching life most wouldn’t see in seven lifetimes and after three seasons at Florida Atlantic where he went 26-13 with two C-USA titles, Ole Miss became the program that would finally give him his next shot at the big leagues of college football. It’s no surprise when you consider two of the three previous head coaches in Oxford left the program in shambles with NCAA recruiting violations. This is an institution that doesn’t mind living on the edge.
The now seasoned offensive savant has latched onto the Art Briles coaching tree having his son Kendal Briles serve as his FAU offensive coordinator in 2017 while Art’s son-in-law Jeff Lebby is now Kiffin’s first offensive coordinator at Ole Miss after working a couple seasons with Josh Heupel at UCF. The Rebels want to space the field with formations to create inside running lanes and one-on-ones outside for vertical shot plays. They will play with tempo and go big game hunting for explosive plays.
At FAU, Kiffin led the Owls to three consecutive top-50 offensive efficiency finishes and is hopeful those results translate in the SEC. The defense is still a big question mark, but it is becoming clear that Kiffin is bringing fireworks with him and that is what made so many very happy when he made his way back into the SEC.
Thank God Lane Kiffin is back in the SEC.
Check out the shirt from his Monday presser: pic.twitter.com/3jAK3qXsw8
— SEC Mike (@MichaelWBratton) September 28, 2020
This will be the 43rd meeting between the two programs and Ole Miss leads the series by a count of 27-14-1. The Rebels and Wildcats have only met five times since 2001 and before that the two programs met every year from 1944-1971. Ole Miss has had the upper hand in the last 30 years winning 8 of the last 10 meetings with the Wildcats. In 2017, Ole Miss came to Lexington in November and delivered an upset win capped off by a crazy DK Metcalf touchdown grab to win it in the final minute.
Out in the desert, Kentucky is a 6.5 point favorite with a total of 62. That’s a projected final score around 34-28. Both teams are off to 0-1 ATS starts to begin the season while the over is 1-0 for Ole Miss and the under is 1-0 for Kentucky. Dating back to 2016, UK is 0-6 ATS in their last six home games as an SEC favorite with straight up losses to Ole Miss in 2017 and Tennessee in 2019. The Rebels were 3-3-1 ATS as an SEC dog last season.
The Lane Train has just one game under its belt, but this offense certainly passed the early look test. Ole Miss rang up 35 points and posted 7.9 yards per play against a Florida defense that was projected to be a top-five unit in college football before the year started. They did most of their damage through the air.
Matt Corral tossed for 395 yards and three touchdowns while averaging 12.74 yards per attempt and completing 71% of his passes. His QB rating of 203.5 was the highest for an Ole Miss quarterback in an SEC game since Bo Wallace tossed five touchdowns in a beatdown of archrival Mississippi State in the 2012 Egg Bowl. The former top-100 recruit has a big arm and some underrated athleticism. You must take away the deep ball and make him hit checkdowns to move the chains and keep drives alive.
On the perimeter, junior Elijah Moore will be the top target and the former blue-chipper from South Florida had a remarkable 2020 debut after collecting 103 receptions and eight touchdowns in his first two seasons on campus. Moore hauled in 10 grabs for 227 yards on just 12 targets against Florida with two gains of 50-plus yards. The Rebels will attack the middle of the field with Moore and the pass offense starts with him. He’ll catch it on screens and Kiffin will also send him deep. Kentucky must know where No. 8 is at all times.
Jerrion Ealy became this program’s first five-star recruit when he signed in 2019 since Greg Little, Shea Patterson and Benito Jones all signed with the Rebels in 2016 in what would be Hugh Freeze’s final impact recruiting class. The Mississippi native is also a legit MLB prospect playing for the Ole Miss baseball team and was an All-SEC selection as a freshman. The sophomore is averaging 6.7 yards per carry on 120 career rushes and is an effective pass catcher out of the backfield. With seven rushes of 20-plus yards he is a threat to take it to the house at any moment.
The Rebels will go three-deep in the backfield with Snoop Conner (No. 24) serving as a power back and Henry Parrish Jr. (No. 25) is set to make his debut this week as a true freshman after the blue-chipper was banged up last week. At wideout, Moore is a target monster who was responsible for 36% of the team’s receptions last year and followed that with 37.5% of the targets against Florida. Outside, senior Dontario Drummond (No. 11) looks like a potential deep weapon at Z receiver while Temple transfer Kenny Yeboah (No. 84) reeled in five grabs while averaging 18 yards per catch at tight end in his Ole Miss debut. Kentucky will have to matchup in coverage with the tight end after Auburn didn’t throw to the position once last week. Kiffin did some really nice things with tight ends at FAU with Harrison Bryant winning the Mackey Award last season.
On the offensive line, the Rebels have three new starters this season (one sophomore, two redshirt freshmen) while their returning starters are playing different positions. Ben Brown (No. 55) slid from right guard to center while Royce Newman (No. 72) moved from left guard to right tackle. This group allowed four sacks and seven non-sack tackles for loss last week against Florida proving big plays can be had at the line of scrimmage. UK’s defensive front must take advantage of the all the new pieces in a new scheme.
Defense was never a strong suit for the Rebels during the Matt Luke era as Ole Miss never ranked higher than 11th in the SEC in yards per play defense and scoring defense. After giving up 51 points on 8.7 yards per play in the opener against Florida, it’s looking like more of the same from them in 2020.
Under their third defensive coordinator in three seasons, D.J. Durkin has taken over in Oxford and the former defensive play-caller for Will Muschamp at Florida and Jim Harbaugh at Michigan had a pretty horrible tenure as the head coach at Maryland in more ways than one. Under Durkin, the Terps never finished higher than 11th in either scoring defense or yards per play defense in the Big Ten. All signs are pointing to this being the worst defense in the SEC.
Ole Miss returns five starters off of last year’s unit and has four junior college transfers who will see a lot of snaps. Durkin uses a hybrid 4-2-5 scheme which will look very similar design wise to what Kentucky saw last week from Auburn. Lakia Henry (No. 0) led the team in tackles last season from his Will linebacker spot while Jacquez Jones (No. 32) was a bit more disruptive and has moved inside to Mike in the new scheme. Jaylon Jones (No. 38) may be the most important player from his strong safety position and he’ll be a guy Durkin tries to sneak into the box to help against UK’s rushing attack.
In the trenches, Tariquious Tisdale (No. 22) flashed at the traditional defensive end spot recording 1.5 non-sack tackles for loss in the opener which was the same number he put up all of last season. This front produced three tackles for loss on run plays last week and we saw Kentucky’s offensive line struggle to prevent penetration on run plays last week. This must be corrected in this week’s game prep.
Despite just getting shredded last week, the Rebels did produce some havoc. Ole Miss forced two fumbles, reeled in an interception, had a sack and four additional non-sack tackles for loss. If Kentucky is able to avoid the negative plays, chunk yardage opportunities will be available against a unit that likes to take chances. Florida hit on 17 splash plays (rush of 10-plus yards, pass of 15-plus yards) in just 74 snaps with two gains of 50-plus.
Special Teams Breakdown
Luke Logan (No. 92) is now in third season as the starting placekicker at Ole Miss and after a solid start (22 of 27) he has struggled with consistency. Logan is just hitting 55% on his last 20 field goal attempts and has missed four extra points in his career. He doesn’t have a big leg on kickoffs and can be a liability at times. His career long is currently sitting at just 41 yards.
At punter, Mac Brown (No. 96) finished middle of the road in conference play last season averaging 44.28 yards per attempt. He has had double-digit punts of 50-plus yards in his career. He is very serviceable and put up a good outing against Florida averaging 49 yards per punt with one downed inside the 20.
In the return game, Ole Miss uses its best skill talent. Elijah Moore is the starting punt returner, but was very pedestrian last year averaging just over six yards a return in 14 tries. Jerrion Ealy will be back deep on kickoffs and he has a kickoff return touchdown to his name. He put up just 24 yards per return, but UK should be careful when they put the ball into his hands.
Overall, this looks to just be an average special teams unit. UK should have the advantage in the third phase on Saturday.
Keys to Victory
- Kentucky has to get back to pounding the rock this week. All signs point to this Ole Miss defense potentially being the worst they will see all season and UK has a major, major advantage at the line of scrimmage. UK’s backs need to break tackles at the second-level and must approach 250-plus rushing yards in the ballgame. Get the rushing attempts to around 50 and have the pass attempts at 20-25. That is this team’s winning recipe.
- Ole Miss wants to go big play hunting and they are going to take vertical shots no matter what you do on defense. UK must be aware and take the big play away. The Wildcats need to sit in their zone defenses with discipline and make Matt Corral dink-and-dunk his way down the field for scores. Do this consistently and eventual greediness form Ole Miss will lead to turnovers.
- Both Auburn and Kentucky had five scoring opportunities in the game last weekend, but the Tigers won by 16. Why? They finished drives. The Wildcats scored on just 1 of their 3 red zone possessions while they turned the ball over on downs on their second possession of the day inside the Auburn 40. Kentucky must finish successful drives with points.
- Kentucky will have to play in nickel or dime probably for the majority of this matchup. Ole Miss will spread the field and get their tight end involved in the passing game. However, they want to run it when they spread you out. When matching up with Ole Miss in a light box, Kentucky’s front must win one-one-ones and maintain their gap integrity on run fits. You cannot give Jerrion Ealy wide creases to run. This becomes even more critical when Kiffin inserts John Rhys Plumlee (No. 10) at quarterback to give the defense a wildcat look. The best thing UK did on the Plains was fit the run and if they do that again this week it should give plenty of opportunities for the pass rush to pin their ear’s back and attack.