When the Southeastern Conference announced a 10-game, conference-only schedule that will begin on September 26th, it was both good and bad new for Ole Miss. Yes, a season being played is triumphant, but the dialectical thinking comes from the positive of extra preparation for a first-year staff and the negative of losing non-conference opponents that may have provided a boost to the overall record.
Before Thursday’s announcement, the Rebels were scheduled to face Baylor, Southeast Missouri, Georgia Southern and Connecticut. In a perfect world, all four games end up in the win column. If that were the case, Ole Miss would have needed just two conference wins to reach a bowl game— and Vanderbilt and Arkansas are on the schedule.
This COVID-19 reality is not a perfect world, of course, but football is being played (at least for now). That’s a win in and of itself. However, it comes with the daunting task of facing only opponents from the best conference in football week-in and week-out. Brutal.
In many ways, Ole Miss was banking on the four non-conference opponents for bowl eligibility, and the good news is that the NCAA has approved a waiver that allows FBS programs two phantom wins over FCS schools to count toward their overall records.
“The Division I Council approved a blanket waiver request to allow a Football Bowl Subdivision team to count for bowl eligibility and scheduling requirements two games against Football Championship Subdivision teams that meet adjusted minimum scholarship criteria. This adjustment applies only to the 2020-21 season.
Current FBS rules require an FCS opponent to have averaged 90 percent of the maximum number of football scholarships during a rolling two-year period for that game to count for bowl selection and scheduling requirements for the FBS team. The waiver allows the games to count if the FCS opponents average at least 80 percent.”
While the two wins are certainly helpful if bowl games are played at all, the 10-game schedule still rids Ole Miss of two hopeful victories. For sake of argument, wins will be credited over Southeast Missouri and Georgia Southern, while Baylor and UConn are replaced with any two-team combination of Georgia, South Carolina, Missouri, Tennessee, or Kentucky. No matter how it shakes out, the Rebels will be running the gauntlet.
But football is being played. That is good. And in many ways, the push back plays well for Lane Kiffin and his first-year coaching staff.
The delayed-start decision, presumably, comes from allowing the student-athletes ample time to prepare for the season from a physical standpoint. Football is a violent game that requires peak shape and an adjustment period to contact for the body. Going from an offseason to a full-blown regular season would be a daunting ask in a normal calendar year. Asking players to go from this bizarre 2020 spring to summer workouts in the weight room straight into an SEC schedule just doesn’t work. The athletes need a proper fall practice period to wear pads, absorb a hit and retrain the body to in-game movements and torque.
By not rushing into a season, it will allow the student-athletes proper time to get ready. Ethics and logic aside, from a strictly win-driven ideology, the deferral will give the Ole Miss coaching staff its players in peak physical strength normal to a football season, as opposed to having to worry about injuries and load management.
Where the extra time before the season really factors in is with Xs and Os.
Outside of a few breakout runs, a decent pass rush and a surprisingly strong run defense, the 2019 Matt Luke, Rich Rodriguez and Mike MacIntyre team was not very good, but full of athletes. Kiffin inherits a youthful roster on both sides of the ball, returns a core group of top-tier backfield talent and plans to shake things up.
A year ago, the Rebels ran the ball 46.5 times per game, and attempted only 27.5 passes. The high play count is something that will continue under the new head coach and his offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby (who will have primary control of the offense) but the run-pass balance will shift more toward the center, if not favor the air attack. Both the Central Florida, where Lebby called plays, and Florida Atlantic offenses averaged more than 70 plays per game. However, the Knights attempted 35.2 passes and ran the ball 42.9 times per game, while the Owls saw only four more carries than pass attempts.
In addition, both offensive minds favor spread systems that open up the field and get the ball to their playmakers. We saw a lot of what Lebby likes to do at UCF, and it fits well with the weapons he will oversee in Oxford.
The option will still play a significant role in doing so, but the playbook will open up with more formations, blocking schemes, routes and reads that are more complex than before. Before the new offense can get running at top-speed, the coaches need time with their players to, well, teach the new offense and evaluate which guys fit best in that new system.
For Ole Miss in particular, that evaluation period is crucial and starts with the most important player on the field. Kiffin and Lebby have three viable options at quarterback, who each bring different skillsets. John Rhys Plumlee, Matt Corral, Grant Tisdale, and even Kade Renfro have a shot at winning the starting job. By moving the season to the last weekend in September, it allows the staff to make a coherent, educated decision on who gets the nod.
The same goes for the defense. Co-defensive coordinators Chris Partridge and D.J. Durkin have a lot to figure out before the season begins. For starters, Durkin runs a complicated ‘multiple defense’ scheme which runs different variations out of 3-4, 4-3 and 3-3-5 formations that can’t be taught in just a few weeks. In the clubhouse, teaching requires deep dives into the playbook and a lot of film breakdown. On the field, it demands a specific type of athlete and time to work through the kinks of consistency switching looks down the field.
Speaking to the depth chart, MacIntyre shuffled quite a few players through his secondary last season, and two of the players with top minutes moved on to the NFL. Partridge and Durkin will have to figure out where and how Jaylon Jones, A.J. Finley, Keidron Smith, Jon Haynes, Lakevias Daniel and Jay Stanley fit into the different schemes.
Closer to the line of scrimmage, Durkin typically likes to use one of his linebackers as a hybrid edge rusher in a 4-3 scheme, as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 or 3-3-5 scheme, or even as a roaming safety in a twisted nickel 3-3-5 scheme. Does he have that player on the roster already? Will he be forced to adjust based on who he has?
More questions arise in the trenches. Ole Miss lost both Benito Jones and Josiah Coatney to the NFL in April. Durkin and Partridge will be tasked with replacing two big-bodied run-stoppers this fall, as well as increasing the pass rush. The questions can only be answered with the luxury of time that the delayed start provides.
Under normal circumstances, Kiffin would have taken over as head coach in December, brought in a staff, hit the recruiting trail before signing day and had time to transition the team to his culture and style before spring football. By the time spring football rolled around, all systems would have been go, the players would have been in shape, and the focus would have been on implementing the new systems.
Instead, COVID-19 shut everything down, canceled spring ball and cast significant doubt over playing a 2020 season at all. As of right now, the Southeastern Conference is playing football in a 10-game, conference-only capacity. Though schedules have yet to be released, the start date is set for September 26 and that’s a great thing for Ole Miss. By moving the season back by two weeks, it allows Kiffin his new all-star coaching staff to play catch up for the time that was missed in March and April.