Florida and Ole Miss have played just once since Tim Tebow’s famous post-loss speech, and even that was two Rebel head coaches ago. The program in Oxford isn’t one the Gators encounter often, and it’s not exactly known for long-term stability.
You may have some questions about the team that UF faces on Saturday, is what I’m saying. Here’s my best attempt at answering some of what you’ve got.
So it’s Lane Kiffin, huh?
Wikipedia defines Lane Kiffin as, “a post-season college football bowl game certified by the NCAA that began play in the 2014 season. Backed by the Detroit Lions of the National Football League, the game…”
Wait, sorry. That’s the Quick Lane Bowl.
Lane Kiffin is not a name that needs introduction around here after his troll-tastic year at Tennessee in 2009. He’s largely kept quiet outside of a few viral Twitter posts since coming to Oxford. I assume part of that is a function of the uncertainty around COVID-19, but he has toned things down a little in the decade since he was in Knoxville. A few years in Nick Saban’s Finishing School for Wayward Coaches will do that to a guy.
His first and third teams at FAU won double-digit games and, prior to the ’19 bowl that he didn’t coach, were in the 45-50 range of SP+. In between was a pretty rotten 5-7 year, but hey, it’s FAU. He did a good job there.
The program he takes over has been in flux at the top. Hugh Freeze last coached the team with DC Dave Wommack in 2016. In 2017, Matt Luke took over on an interim basis with OC Phil Longo and DC Wesley McGriff. Luke got the job permanently in 2018 but added Jason Jones as a co-DC. After going 5-7, Luke fired McGriff and let Longo walk to UNC. A pair of former head coaches in Rich Rodriguez and Mike MacIntyre entered the coordinator spots, but the Rebels went 4-8 and Luke got fired.
Recruiting declined some after the NCAA punished the program for its misdeeds under Freeze. When UF last faced Ole Miss in 2015, the program was 19th in the Team Talent Composite with 22 former blue chip recruits. Last year the Rebels were 25th with 18 former blue chip recruits.
The biggest change from half a decade ago is the Rebels are seldom landing anyone rated higher than mid 4-star anymore. The team put just three players on the preseason All-SEC team, all on the third team with one being the punter. The other two were WR Elijah Moore, who we’ll get to later, and RB/all-purpose pick Jerrion Ealy, who was one of those rare top talents as a 5-star coming out of high school.
How have the Rebels dealt with the pandemic?
Not as well as Florida has. A total of 27 players missed a scrimmage in early September. The mix that were COVID-related and not isn’t known, but that’s a huge number. Kiffin said early on in fall camp that defensive back was hit hardest, but otherwise he has kept pretty quiet about specifics.
Who should I worry about on their offense?
The aforementioned Moore. While he’s best known for imitating a peeing dog in last year’s Egg Bowl, drawing a penalty that helped Mississippi State win, he’s a terrific wideout. He made the All-SEC team for a reason.
Moore had 67 catches last year; the next-highest on the team was Ealy with 20. Despite no other receiver averaging more than about one catch per game, Moore racked up 850 yards and six touchdowns. Think Florida will try to neutralize him with its best DBs? Yeah, everyone does that. Moore will probably get his.
Who’s behind center?
If you’ve heard much about the offense, it’s probably the quarterbacks Matt Corral (the former McElwain commit) and John Rhys Plumlee. Fall camp reports had Corral ahead, but Kiffin’s initial depth chart has them both at the top with an OR. The head coach said he expects to play both.
Plumlee is a dynamic runner but is so limited throwing that I don’t expect UF’s defense to have much trouble with him. Play the run, and the defensive backs can probably handle business on their own in case a throw comes. Worst-case scenario for Florida with him is he hits just enough passes that the defense backs off a little and he starts gashing them with runs like a better version of what Towson’s Tom Flacco did last year.
I expect to see Corral most of the way. If there’s any trickery anywhere, it’ll probably be Plumlee lining up in places other than quarterback to get his unreal speed on the field with an actual throwing threat behind center.
What about the defense?
The lineup will look familiar to UF fans, as you’ll see a nominal 3-3-5 with a Buck and star. DJ Durkin, who ran that kind of scheme at Florida for Will Muschamp, is the primary of the co-DCs in Oxford, so the look will be familiar. The results probably will not be, however.
The rule of thumb with this year’s Ole Miss defense is that it’s strong on the edges but weak up the middle. Buck has the likes of Sam Williams and his six sacks and 9.5 TFLs from last year, but the middle lost Benito Jones without a comparable replacement. The corners are solid, including the big 6’2″ Keidron Smith, but the safeties are a question mark. The most proven safety is Jon Haynes, but he ended up on the second line of the depth chart. The starter at star is a JUCO transfer from the 2020 class.
The exception to the rule is linebacker, which has quality experience returning. Expect to see a lot of a trio of guys there in Lakia Henry and Jacquez Jones, the two leading tacklers from last year’s team, plus MoMo Sanogo, the leading tackler from 2018 who only played in two games due to injury in 2019.
What’s the bottom line?
Florida should win the game. The Gators have more talent, a redshirt senior at quarterback, and continuity in scheme. Ole Miss has its third head coach and fourth set of coordinators in five years, didn’t get spring practice to install the new stuff, and had more players than UF did coming in and out of fall camp due to COVID issues. Beyond that, I offer no “should” statements.
If there’s one thing the first few weeks of this disjointed season have taught us, it’s that there is no way to know for sure what’s going to happen. No one is releasing the names of players who will sit due to positive tests or contact tracing — and Florida probably will have some number missing after it reported positive tests the last two weeks — and level of play has been highly variable.
On top of all that, it’s a UF road game in Mississippi at noon. Nothing says “the Gators are going to come out flat and underachieve” like a trip to an SEC West non-traditional power in the Jefferson Pilot time slot. One would hope this game being the opener would provide all the motivation required, but one has been wrong before.
If Florida plays even its B- game, it should come away with a win. There are enough holes in the Rebel defense that big plays may be able to bail them out if the offense doesn’t run on all cylinders out of the gate. The Ole Miss offense does have some dangerous guys in Moore, Ealy, and Plumlee, but it’s not stocked like the old Freeze offenses that torched Alabama a couple times did.
One thing UF definitely has on Ole Miss is depth. The Gators are better equipped to withstand some absences in most places than the Rebels are. If it comes down to who has the horses in the fourth quarter, Florida is the easy pick there.
It could be a breeze. It could be a sloppy slog. Your guess is as good as mine, but the odds are high that the Gators will in some form or fashion start the season 1-0.