We knew Ole Miss would be entertaining with Lane Kiffin, and Saturday’s opener against No. 5 Florida provided more than a few “look at that” moments.
Ole Miss wore those custom powder-blue uniforms. There was an all-star lineup of cardboard cutouts, complete with a “Weekend at Bernie’s” homage mixed with the in-person fans at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Ole Miss’ defensive back A.J. Finley received a “turnover cash bag” prop after a first-quarter interception. Dontario Drummond wore a “TD chain” after scoring the first points of the Kiffin era.
Saturday showed Ole Miss will have no shortage of entertainment value with Kiffin. You have to admire the Rebels’ for living up to that image under their new coach: Look at that! Look at this!
But a 51-35 loss to the Gators that produced a combined 1,255 yards of total offense put all of that in plain sight. For better and worse, this is what to expect under Kiffin in Year 1.
Florida quarterback Kyle Trask finished with 416 yards and six touchdowns, while tight end Kyle Pitts flashed first-round value with eight catches, 170 yards and four touchdowns. Gators coach Dan Mullen is no stranger to gimmicks, but the third-year coach rebuilt the Gators into a College Football Playoff contender of substance.
Can Kiffin do the same in Oxford? It can be done long term. Ole Miss did win 10 games with Hugh Freeze — including the Sugar Bowl — in 2015. That was before the program became a punchline again. It’s on Kiffin to change that.
The offense is good. Kiffin remains one of the best offensive minds in the FBS, and that creativity showed. Drummond completed a double pass for a 45-yard gain. Quarterback Matt Corral (391 passing yards, three touchdowns) flashed in a big-play passing game that averaged 12.7 yards per attempt. Elijah Moore had 10 catches for 227 yards.
This should not be a surprise for those who follow Kiffin. Florida Atlantic averaged 38.1 points per game the last three seasons under Kiffin and had a top-10 scoring offense in 2017. He knows how to call plays.
The defense is bad. Florida is a tough opener, but Trask made it look too easy at times. The Gators converted 6 on 10 third downs, and the “cash bag” only came out once. Florida distanced its lead to 28-14 with a touchdown drive to close the first half.
Ole Miss had a chance to make it interesting one last time with 10:08 left in the fourth quarter, trailing 44-29. MoMo Sanogo was dealt a questionable roughing the passer call, however, and Trask cashed in with his last touchdown pass to Pitts while boos still echoed in the stadium. It was a bad call, but it didn’t make the problem: Florida rolled up 642 yards of offense on the Rebels. Ole Miss made it entertaining down to the last minute with an onside kick — especially for bettors sitting on that two-touchdown spread — and a last-second pass that missed. Everybody together now: “Lane knew the spread.”
That could be a familiar theme for Ole Miss games in 2020. No. 2 Alabama and No. 8 Auburn visit Oxford before Halloween, two of five ranked teams the Rebels will play. It’s not going to be an easy first year for Kiffin, who will continue to be the focus.
This is a coach whose 35-21 record at Tennessee and USC is overshadowed by the unceremonious exits at both places. Kiffin resuscitated his coaching career with a stint at Alabama’s offensive coordinator and a three-year project at FAU, but this is the long-awaited shot back in the big time.
He has made that happen with a flair that translates well on social media, but it’s a fair question to wonder what happens when the gimmicks wear off. See: Butch Jones at Tennessee, or even Jim Harbaugh at Michigan. Kiffin does not have quite the same expectations at Ole Miss, but he is every bit the same kind of polarizing personality.
Some want the “Lane Train” to roll on. Others are waiting for the next Tarmac moment. We knew it would be entertaining when he arrived at Ole Miss, and the debut did not disappoint. In the SEC, however, you are only looked at for so long.
Losing is never a laughing matter.