What makes Ole Miss football a serious title contender in 2024?

Ole Miss has continually been overshadowed by SEC foes, but is this finally the year for Lane Kiffin and company? With immense talent and roster improvements, the Rebels hold legit playoff aspirations.
Ole Miss v Georgia
Ole Miss v Georgia / Todd Kirkland/GettyImages

For years, Ole Miss football has been viewed as the “little brother” team in the SEC.

Sitting in the shadow of surrounding powerhouses like Alabama, Georgia, and LSU, Ole Miss has served the SEC as a meaningful outcast. Now, the line between playoff aspirations and disappointment has become apparent. With immense talent, and Lane Kiffin at the helm, the Rebels now gaze their eyes in the direction of the College Football Playoff.

As fascinating as Ole Miss’ story sounds, the team still holds plenty of questions. Like last season, the Rebels have taken the same route under Lane Kiffin. The team brought back loads of talent and acquired ‘win-now’ pieces from rival schools. But how does this impact the playoff chances for Ole Miss? 

Reflecting upon last season, Ole Miss had a compelling campaign. Under the spotlight of a highly explosive offense, the Rebels established themselves as a premier offensive threat in the SEC. If there was any indication of last season’s offense, look no further than the first game where the Rebels put up 73 points against Mercer. Regardless of the team, Ole Miss, for the most part, put up very high-scoring numbers. The team averaged 35 points per game, ultimately prompting a 10-2.

The two stumbles came against Alabama and Georgia, both games being on the road. Ole Miss scored a combined 27 points in both games, with the Georgia game coming as a blowout. The Rebels did close their season on a strong note, following an electrifying 38-25 win in the Peach Bowl over Penn State.

Channeling all the momentum built off last season, it should be clear just how much anticipation this team holds. As just one of the many loaded squads in the SEC, Ole Miss can easily be overshadowed by the likes of Georgia, Texas, and Alabama. However, the blueprint for Lane Kiffin and the boys in Oxford remains constant, with similar hopes to reach the promised land.

Looking into Ole Miss’ upcoming 2024 schedule, the Rebels look to have things a bit easier. Avoiding Alabama and Texas is a major blessing, while also getting the two big games at home. The Rebels will have both Georgia and Oklahoma at home while facing some key rivals such as LSU, Florida, Arkansas, and South Carolina on the road.

Most would consider anything below 10-2 a “disappointment”. And rightfully so, considering the baseline Ole Miss set for themselves with their success last year. Reasonably, even with Georgia at home, there's a major possibility of losing. While road games appear pretty favorable, there should also be room for let-up within the gauntlet having to face both South Carolina and LSU on the road, Oklahoma at home, Arkansas on the road, and Georgia to close it out at home. Being opportunistic, there is a real scenario where Ole Miss could finish even better than they did last year, and easily secure a spot in the playoff. Even with a 10-2 finish, it is hard to imagine Ole Miss still missing out, considering their strength of schedule and how the rest of the SEC pans out. 

Overlooking the team, there is massive potential. You may be wondering why so many people are so optimistic about this team. In simple terms, Lane Kiffin has a star-studded team from top-to-bottom. It all starts on the offensive end where Ole Miss holds their identity. With Jaxson Dart returning at quarterback, there is no say in what this offense is capable of. There is little to say about Dart himself, but in the grand scheme of things this guy should be a darkhorse contender to win the Heisman, let alone lead his team to the playoffs. Once again, with lots of talk in the SEC about quarterbacks like Carson Beck and Quinn Ewers, it is easy to forget about Jaxson Dart. But let’s just leave the 3,364 yards and 23 touchdowns to speak for itself. 

Around Dart could be one of the best receiving corps in all college football. It all starts with returning wide receiver Tre Harris. Finishing just shy of 1,000 yards, it is very likely Harris could have touched the 1,200-1,300 receiving mark if he did not miss two games. However, Ole Miss also brought back Jordan Watkins who finished with 741 yards. Kiffin also visited the portal to attract established talent featuring Antwane “Juice” Wells Jr. from South Carolina and Deion Smith from LSU. Additionally, Kiffin added Dae’Quan Wright from Virginia Tech who once was a wide receiver and is now a tight end. Not to mention Caden Prieskorn, returning following his breakout performance in the Peach Bowl. 

Of course, when it comes to the major losses of the offseason the top name is Quinshon Judkins who once led the Rebels with 1,158 yards and 15 touchdowns. This leaves the biggest question mark revolving around the running back room. However, there can be expectations for success as Ole Miss has some depth at the position. The room will likely start behind Ulysses Bentley IV who has a major opportunity to erupt. Bently will return for his fifth season, following his transfer out of SMU. Alongside Bently is Logan Diggs, a transfer from LSU and Notre Dame. Diggs is coming off a torn ACL, but when healthy has proven his reliability in the backfield.  

Frankly, the running back room has no reason to be anything astonishing. Sure, having Judkins back would make things much easier. Bently and whoever rushes behind him should just be a steady back who can consistently gain short yardage and be useful on third and fourth downs. The efficiency in this offense is highly reliant upon the receiving group, which can undoubtedly prove to be one of the best in the country.

Ole Miss has a situation where the offense could be so good that they have room for let-up on the defensive end. As a team that scored the ball so well last season and arguably has just gotten better, there is no reason the Rebels should score in low numbers. There is a scenario where Ole Miss could allow 20-plus points a game, and still win games solely because of their offense.

Defensively, the Rebels are very sound. It’s hard to talk about winning football without mentioning defense, but you may ask who exactly is the focal point of this defense? There are many different guys that you can look at as the “leader” of this defense, but it all starts with the front seven. In particular, the defensive line, with returning lineman, JJ Pegues. As a senior who has only improved with his time in Oxford, Pegues is looking towards a career-defining season. Pegues is a guy who charted 43 total tackles, 18 solo tackles, and 3.5 sacks. 

The big name in town is the transfer from Florida, Princely Umanmielen. This is a guy who was considered to be one of the Gators' best defensive weapons with his ample versatility. At 6-foot-5, 225 pounds, Umanmielen can virtually line up anywhere with the appropriate frame to collapse the pocket. Umanmielen charted 22 solo tackles and seven sacks last season with the Gators. Ole Miss continued to improve the defensive line by adding Walter Nolen, a transfer from Texas A&M. Nolen flashed massive potential with the Aggies, logging 20 solo tackles and four sacks.

Aside from all this, the Rebels brought in Alabama transfer Trey Amos. As an expected starter, the Rebels' biggest question mark comes in the cornerback room. Amos brings a great man coverage ability, but who will be starting next to him remains unknown. Chris Graves (Miami transfer) could be a possibility in this position.

Losing Cedric Johnson on the line and Jerimiah Jean-Baptiste on the back end were big losses for Ole Miss as well. However, with the reinforcements up front and Chris Paul Jr. along with Suntarine Perkins at the safety unit, these two areas should be just fine. Ultimately, the defensive front has a chance to be one of the best in college football. It will come down to the efficiency in the secondary and containing lethal opposing weapons on the outside.

With regards to SEC football, the predictability amongst teams always presents difficulty. Nevertheless, Ole Miss presents great reasons to believe this team can reach the playoff and drag out a successful season. The leadership, talent, and depth are unprecedented for those for follow football in Oxford.

Now, with possibly their best chance in decades, how will Ole Miss answer the hype? Only time will tell, as the Rebels seek to shock the world.

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