By John Macon Gillespie
After a tumultuous offseason centered on COVID-19 storylines, the Southeastern Conference kicks off this weekend with a full slate of games, including one here in Oxford between No. 5 Florida and the new-look Ole Miss Rebels.
The last time Ole Miss and Florida met on the gridiron is not a fond memory for Rebel fans. The 2015 installment saw Ole Miss go on the road to Gainesville and fall 38-10. The Rebels were ranked No. 3 nationally at the time and would go on to win the Sugar Bowl after a head-scratching loss to Memphis and a 4th& 25-induced disaster against Arkansas.
That vaunted 2015 roster had names like Chad Kelly, Jaylen Walton and Laquon Treadwell at its disposal, and it’s hard to believe that it’s been five years since this Sugar Bowl run, which is the Rebels’ latest bowl appearance due to NCAA fallout.
This season will be far from normal. Ole Miss has a new head coach in Lane Kiffin and a fresh staff, but they have the challenge of facing an all-SEC schedule due to trying to limit the spread of COVID-19. There are no “gimmes” for Ole Miss this season, as evidenced by opening the season against a top-five opponent from Gainesville. With 10 games on the difficult 2020 slate, it’s unfair to judge this team by the typical wins-and-losses hallmark, but once the ball is in the air on Saturdays, all bets are off, and fans want to win.
I’m not going to lie; I didn’t pick Ole Miss to win this weekend. The Gators have a more talented roster and a coaching staff that has been in place for numerous seasons. Ole Miss does not have this luxury and didn’t even have a spring practice or a normal fall camp due to COVID-19. New systems, new staff and some question marks on the roster are not in the Rebels’ favor this week.
Still, Ole Miss upgraded in the coaching department this offseason and gets the Gators at home. It’s also worth noting that Florida was affected by some opt-outs and the same issues brought on by COVID-19 as Ole Miss. They just were in a better position to deal with these hurdles. I’m not saying Ole Miss has no chance to pull off an upset in Oxford in Lane Kiffin’s debut; I just believe it’s slim.
I believe Ole Miss is outmatched this week and will be again before the season is over, but football is back, and for that, we should be grateful. I also believe the Rebels’ program is in a better position now than it was in November, and regardless of what the record looks like at the end of this crazy season, Ole Miss fans should be excited about the present and future under Lane Kiffin.
Powder blue jerseys, an exciting head coach, a beautiful campus and town and a great sport. It’s finally time for football again in Oxford. Let’s enjoy the ride.