Ole Miss roster turnover an issue again in '23

Mississippi head coach Lane Kiffin looks on as his team plays against Liberty during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Oxford, Miss., Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021. Mississippi won 27-14. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The final column in the SEC football standings is abbreviated “STRK” and it stands for streak, and that “L4” at the end of the Ole Miss row means the Rebels lost their last four games of the 2022 season.

For a team that opened 8-1 for the dashing and daring Coach Lane Kiffin, that four-game skid loomed as a big bummer over the last seven months.

The Rebels (8-5, 4-4 SEC) tied their Egg Bowl rival Mississippi State for third in the SEC West behind LSU and Alabama, but they were in title consideration before the late meltdown. Kiffin’s last two teams had compiled an 18-4 run before the skid, which featured losses to Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi State and Texas Tech by a combined 138-98.

“We were on a really good run,” Kiffin said at SEC media days. “I’m not going to say a great run, because we have extremely high standards.

“But, you know, coming off the 10-3 season, and really last year, we were 8-1, and with the ball in our hands … 14-yard line, 1st and 10 with a chance to beat Alabama to have a great home win and to go to 9-1.”

That didn’t happen. Alabama held on downs to preserve a 30-24 win in Oxford, Miss., then Arkansas raced to a 42-7 lead the following week before a late rally brought the Rebels within 15 points to the final score of 42-27.

Kiffin said the team did not hold together for the final month of the season, possibly due to so many newcomers on the roster in the transfer portal era.

“Even if you look at the NBA, when they put together these good free agent teams, if seasons don’t go great it’s very hard to keep everybody playing at a high level because the expectations were so high,” Kiffin said.

Ole Miss faces the same kind of roster makeup this fall with 40 new scholarship players.

But the Rebels have a solid foundation to build around, beginning with quarterback Jaxson Dart and tailback Quinshon Judkins, the most productive duo in yards from scrimmage in the SEC last year. Ole Miss rushed for a school-record 3,336 yards, an average of 256.5 per game that led all schools that aren’t service academies. Center Caleb Warren and the duo of Jeremy James and Micah Pettus on the right side of the line are returning starters.

Transfers Chris Marshall (Texas A&M) and Tre Harris (Lousiana Tech) could be starters at wideout to supplement returner Jordan Watkins after the departures of Jonathan Mingo and Malik Heath.

Dart could be in for a fight for the starting job as the Rebels landed former Oklahoma State star Spencer Sanders and former LSU signee Walker Howard.

Judkins led the conference and broke school records with 1,565 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns as a true freshman. The 5-11, 200-pounder was a rare sophomore at SEC media days and he discussed the need to branch out his skill set in 2023.

“Definitely later on you could see teams started packing the box on us,” Judkins said of his rookie year.

He said the Rebels have a plan to keep him active this season.

“Just not by being in the backfield only,” he said. “By being used everywhere on the field. Not just by running the ball like I did, vertically down hill.

“As a freshman you don’t really know that much about the game, you can only do so much, even though I knew a lot about the game. That’s why I played a lot. As far as just being able to do a lot of things, going into your second year the more knowledge you have, the greater your skill set, everything that you can do makes it only better.”

The youngster from Pike Road, Ala., averaged 120.4 rushing yards per game and a healthy 5.71 yards on a league-high 274 carries.

“Quinshon is really special,” Kiffin said. “Think about what he did as a freshman, to come in and have that workload. I think he led the SEC in carries and yards and touchdowns as a freshman. And like any freshman, you can get a lot better in Year 2.”

Kiffin re-hired running backs coach Kevin Smith, the former Central Florida and Detroit Lions standout, to help tutor Judkins.

“I think that that’s really beneficial for him to have him as someone that also was a great college player that’s gone through all this hype and all that comes with it,” Kiffin said.

The Rebels are in for another transition defensively as Kiffin hired former Alabama coordinator Pete Golding, whose Crimson Tide units ranked in the top 20 in scoring defense all five of his years. However, Alabama forced a mere 14 turnovers last season, second fewest in the league behind Auburn’s 13.

Judkins seemingly falls in line with the Name, Image and Likeness cautionary tale Kiffin warned about during his opening remarks at media days, though he made sure to point out Judkins is “really mature and a great kid” entering his sophomore year.

“Those kids are young and now that they are getting all that attention around the country: You’re the best player, all the rat poison, from your coach, and now they’ve got money,” Kiffin said. “So now it’s kind of like, whoa, you talk about ego coming in.

“I mean, so this is a lot of challenges on these kids. Again, it’s great they get paid, but here is a whole new set of challenges, because a big motivation for a lot of players is to get to the NFL to get money. Well, now they already have money. So there’s a lot of challenges in here in dealing with ego, which is really dangerous.”

An opposing SEC assistant coach used this description in Athlon magazine for the Ole Miss roster: “This is a portal team, 110%. Maybe they can set the culture from the very top down and not fall into the trap other teams do with that mentality.”

That’s the issue Kiffin felt impacted his club late last year, and with a tougher start to the schedule this time around, his concerns could come into play again by October.

Ole Miss At a Glance

LAST SEASON 8-5, 4-4 (t3rd in SEC West)

COACH Lane Kiffin (23-13 in fourth season at Ole Miss, 84-47 in 12th season overall)

RETURNING STARTERS 14: Offense 8, Defense 5, Specialty 1

KEY PLAYERS QB Jaxson Dart, RB Quinshon Judkins, DE Cedric Johnson, OG Jeremy James, TE Michael Trigg, DT JJ Pegues, CB Deantre Prince

OFFENSIVE COORDINATORS Charlie Weis Jr. (2nd year), John David Baker (2nd year)

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR Pete Golding (1st year)

OUTLOOK Ole Miss must jell on defense very rapidly after undergoing a major roster transformation. Teams will key on Judkins, so Dart or the other quarterbacks have to master their connections with a mostly new receiving corps to keep the offense in balance.

2023 Ole Miss Schedule

Sept. 2 Mercer

Sept. 9 at Tulane

Sept. 16 Georgia Tech

Sept. 23 at Alabama*

Sept. 30 LSU*

Oct. 7 Arkansas*

Oct. 21 at Auburn*

Oct. 28 Vanderbilt*

Nov. 4 Texas A&M*

Nov. 11 at Georgia*

Nov. 18 Louisiana-Monroe

Nov. 23 at Mississippi State*

* — SEC game