Opinion: What Ole Miss football can achieve this spring to be legit contenders come fall

Nick Suss
Mississippi Clarion Ledger

OXFORD — The machine that generates offseason hype for college football programs on the rise has selected Ole Miss as its 2021 team of choice.

Consider this: Ole Miss was picked as a preseason top 25 program by ESPN, Sporting News, The Athletic and Stadium. Only two other schools — Wisconsin and Penn State — made all four of those lists without finishing in last year's final College Football Playoff Top 25 rankings.

It's hardly fair to call Wisconsin, which hasn't had a losing season since 2001, or Penn State, which just suffered its first losing season since 2004, upstart programs.

That leaves Ole Miss as the hype machine's lone consensus pick to be this year's new contender. Fair or not, the team that went 5-5 last season and hasn't had a winning season since 2015 ranks ahead of schools like Texas, LSU and Miami in ESPN's preseason Top 25.

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There are plenty of reasons to like this team, obviously. Quarterback Matt Corral will be a preseason All-SEC, and maybe All-America, honoree. The Rebels return four offensive linemen and their four leading rushers after leading the SEC in rushing last year. The defense could start as many as six returning seniors and another five traditional seniors. And the recruiting class brought in seven four-star signees and the two best junior college defensive linemen in the country.

Still, it feels a bit premature to coronate Ole Miss among the big boys. Spring practice starts Tuesday, and there are still a number of questions Lane Kiffin and his Rebels need to answer. 

Who is going to replace Elijah Moore as the driving engine of the offense? Is it a good thing to return your entire defense when those players allowed 38.3 points and 519 yards per game last season? How will the newcomers fit on this roster when many of them didn't meet Kiffin or his assistants in person for the first time until they enrolled?

Luckily for Ole Miss, those questions can be addressed this spring.

Replacing Moore doesn't mean finding someone else to average 10.8 catches and 149.1 receiving yards per game. It means finding a new primary key for defenses to have to build their game plans around.

With running back Jerrion Ealy limited this spring after offseason surgery, that'll mean opportunities for sophomore Henry Parrish to emerge. Parrish impressed with 191 yards and two touchdowns in Ole Miss' final two games.

Ealy and junior Snoop Conner are known commodities. But a full spring with Kiffin and offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby could elevate Parrish just as high in the pecking order and give the Rebels a three-headed rushing attack capable of filling Moore's absence on the ground instead of through the air.

Conveniently enough, evaluating the defense and addressing the newcomers goes hand in hand. Ole Miss has 15 early enrollees from its 2021 recruiting class. Ten are defensive players.

Junior college defensive linemen Isaiah Iton and Jamond Gordon will compete immediately with Tariqious Tisdale and Quentin Bivens up front. Freshman defensive backs like Dink Jackson, Tysheem Johnson and MJ Daniels will push veterans like Keidron Smith, Jaylon Jones, Otis Reese and Jon Haynes. 

For the first time since before the NCAA probation hit, Ole Miss' defensive starters have genuine competition on the depth chart. Unless all 10 of these defensive early enrollees are busts, this is either going to end with the returning players getting better or being replaced.

There's an old cliche in sports: The better you get, the harder it becomes to get better. It's easier to make the jump from bad to average than it is to go from average to good, and going from good to great is even harder than that.

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Ole Miss' bad-to-average transformation is complete. The blueprint to get from average to good is pretty obvious: Turn a last-place defense into a middle-of-the-pack one. Keep the offense high scoring but make it more efficient. Replenish the depth with high-ranked recruiting classes and scour the transfer market for Day 1 contributors.

The hype machine has already decided this is the year Ole Miss makes that jump. The expectations are here. This spring will be about putting together the building blocks that makes that jump possible.

Contact Nick Suss at 601-408-2674 or nsuss@gannett.com. Follow @nicksuss on Twitter.