By John Macon Gillespie
When’s the last time Ole Miss won a toss-up game?
The Rebels lost four games last season that I would have considered toss-ups: Memphis (15-10), California (28-20), Texas A&M (24-17) and Mississippi State (21-20). Sure, Ole Miss played with house money against Auburn and had chances to win that game, but they didn’t really have an argument as the best team on the field that day. You could argue that Missouri was a toss-up, but I believe the Tigers were just more talented last season, and it showed.
Either way, my point is that in games that could go either way, Ole Miss has lost those for a while now. It seemed that under Matt Luke and his staff, this team didn’t know how to win those tight games, as evidenced by dropping five one-score games a season ago and winning none. In fact, you have to go back to the Rebels topping Arkansas in 2018 37-33 to find the last win the Rebels gained by just one score.
That changed on Saturday.
It wasn’t always pretty (in fact, I wrote off the game a couple of times in my mind prematurely). The defense couldn’t stop the run or the occasional pass, and Kentucky appeared to have all the momentum early in the third quarter.
But, as we knew coming into the season, the offense is the strength of this team, and they kept the Rebels in the game. First, it was 28-14, then 21-unanswered from Ole Miss aided by some timely defensive stops and a missed field goal gave the Rebels the lead. Lane Kiffin and Jeff Lebby’s offense is good, make no mistake, and even in games where Ole Miss is clearly outmatched this season, I expect this offense can keep it interesting.
Of course, we know the rest of the story. Overtime (caused indirectly by Snoop Conner being robbed of a touchdown by SEC replay) went Ole Miss’ way thanks to a missed Kentucky extra point and a brilliant play call at the goal line that drew up a pass from Matt Corral to Elijah Moore. Luke Logan came through with the game-winning PAT, and the Rebels returned to Oxford with a win.
This defense is a problem, but it’s a problem that can only be solved on the recruiting trail. Kentucky rushed for 408 yards and put up over 500 yards total on the day, but Ole Miss managed some late stops to give its offense an opportunity to regain the lead, which it did in the fourth quarter. That’s a positive to grab from an otherwise-poor day on the defensive side of things. Still, this defense is going to be an issue for the Rebels all season. Don’t expect it to go away. It’s going to take time and rebuilding.
Even so, Ole Miss managed a win against a solid and stable program under a strong coaching staff. Even after giving up more than 500 yards of total offense, the Rebels were creative offensively and put up a ton of yardage of their own and strung together a win in the SEC. Matt Corral looks brilliant through two weeks of the season and appears to finally be in an offensive system he’s comfortable with that highlights his skillset. He had another phenomenal day on Saturday, and under the leadership of Lebby and Kiffin could be in position for a special year if he stays healthy.
Don’t get it twisted: there are eight games left on this schedule, and Ole Miss will surely drop some of those games, including next week against a title-contender in Alabama. Barring a miracle, Ole Miss will be at 1-2 after next week, but after that, there are plenty of winnable games on the schedule. Will Ole Miss finish 8-2? Probably not, but Ole Miss football is fun to watch again, and recruits and national talking heads are taking notice. This season isn’t about competing for a title for Kiffin and the Rebels; it’s about building a brand you can recruit to and winning some games in the process.
Overall, it was a good and exciting win for Ole Miss this week, and it came in a way that Rebel fans haven’t seen in a long time. Ole Miss ground out a win in a game that could have gone either way, and that’s a good sign for the future.