Of all the bizarre turns, alliances, double-dealing and skulduggery of the 2023 college football season, the strangest twist — non-Connor Stalions division — might just be the fact that Lane Kiffin has the potential to upend the College Football Playoff.
Yes, Lane Kiffin, college football’s trickster god of golf balls and mustard bottles, tarmac firings and popcorn boxes, is about to get his chance to unleash chaos on a national scale … or, at the very least, make a whole bunch of one-loss teams sweat out the next few weeks.
The Rebels haven’t played Georgia since a 45-14 drubbing of the Bulldogs in Oxford back in 2016, Kirby Smart’s first season at the head of the Georgia program. But given that the NCAA vacated that Ole Miss win, among many others in the 2010s for ineligible players, Georgia technically owns a 10-game winning streak against the Rebels that dates back to 1997.
Since that victory-that-wasn’t, Ole Miss has flopped around in the shallows of the SEC West while Georgia has gone on to become a destroyer of worlds. The Bulldogs haven’t lost a game — any game — in almost two years dating back to the 2021 SEC championship, and haven’t lost in Athens, site of this week’s game, since before the pandemic.
That’s a hell of a resume and a hell of a fight, and you can tell by the fact that Kiffin isn’t teasing Georgia the way he mocked pretty much everyone, even including Nick Saban, in the run-ups to their games earlier this year. It’s a lot easier to taunt a puppy that’s in the window than a wolf that’s on the trail right in front of you.
“This is a very challenging combination,” Kiffin said. “[Facing] elite phenomenal players, elite phenomenal coaches, combined and on the road. There is a trifecta of what is the hardest thing to pull off. This would be it.”
Smart and Kiffin both served on Saban’s staff in the 2014-15 seasons, and Ole Miss is the only SEC team that Smart hasn’t yet beaten. Accordingly, he’s saying all the right things about the Rebels heading into the weekend. “It's a tough prep because they do a lot of different things offensively and create a lot of problems on defense,” Smart said. “I mean they create TFLs [tackles for a loss], and they create a lot of havoc.”
Georgia is favored by 10½, an expected and reasonable line. Ole Miss will need to play a flawless game to beat Georgia in all three phases of the game, but the possibilities are there, faint though they may be.
One key, especially given that this is a night game in Athens where the crowd will certainly be lathered up, will be Ole Miss’ third-down performance. Georgia converts on third down a best-in-the-country 56.3% of the time, while Ole Miss ranks 111th at 32.3%. Georgia allows third-down conversions only 28.2% of the time, while the Rebels’ defense allows conversions on 41.2% of third downs. That’s a crucial stat for both downfield movement and momentum, and Kiffin will need to break out a gambling mindset to cut against those numbers.
Georgia’s run defense is a bit less fierce this year than last, ranking 33rd in yards allowed per carry, down from fourth in 2022. Coincidentally enough, Ole Miss has a multi-pronged rushing attack led by tailback Quinshon Judkins, who’s coming off three straight 100-yard rushing games, as well as the unpredictable mobility of quarterback Jaxson Dart.
The Dawgs have done a fine job of protecting quarterback Carson Beck in his first year as a starter, allowing only one sack a game. The Rebels, meanwhile, average 3.44 sacks a game, meaning something has to give. If Ole Miss can force Beck into quick-strike decision-making, or run up enough scoring to turn the game into the first shootout of the year for Georgia, the door opens a little wider.
“There are going to be games you play [against] the best players in college football, especially in this conference on defense,” Kiffin said. “Those games are going to happen. You better have something creative, or it doesn't work. Talent wins a lot of games. You have to find a way to neutralize that at times.”
The question for Kiffin will be how much he and Ole Miss learned from their lone loss of the season, to Alabama in Tuscaloosa. In that game, Ole Miss led at halftime 7-6 after flustering and frazzling Alabama through an ugly 30 minutes. But in the second half, Saban adjusted and Kiffin didn’t, and the final score was 24-10 Tide. Smart has a similar ability to make halftime adjustments, and it will be up to Kiffin and Dart to create a little of that much-needed chaos to keep the game close.
Should Ole Miss win — yes, we’re getting way ahead of ourselves, but why not? — Georgia plummets into a pool of one-loss teams, with that loss as things stand now “worse” than those of Alabama or Oregon. An Ole Miss victory also sets up the wild possibility that the Rebels could actually make an end run into the playoffs. Ole Miss ranks ninth in the current CFP standings; a loss here and a loss there above them, and the possibilities multiply. Kiffin rightfully shot down talk of that earlier this week — “Start focusing on that, you see a lot of people do that and lose,” he said. “If you don't keep winning, none of that matters at all.”
Kiffin is one of the true larger-than-life characters in college football, but his teams have tended to end up smaller than life in the games that matter most. He’s got a chance to rewrite his narrative this weekend … and maybe a lot more than that.