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What we know about Ole Miss football 2021

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With only the Sugar Bowl to go, we are officially out of dot-dot-dots.

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Well, well, well, if it isn’t the season we thought was possible but not (NOT) probable. For the first time in the lives of anyone reading these words, Ole Miss won 10 regular season games. The historic performance set a school record at a place that has played football since Grover Cleveland 2.0 was back in the White House dealing with the Panic of 1893 and what to do about silver as currency.

For most Ole Miss fans not huffing red and blue freon or declaring all was dead unless a certain ivory-tickling former quarterback took snaps, predictions prior to the 2021 season fell in the neighborhood of 8-4 or 7-5. Not great, but a perfectly fine and enjoyable season, given Ole Miss’ recent history.

However, one could eyeball the schedule and see a scenario where 9-3 or better only required the alignment of a few stars. That was a dramatic departure from August Ole Miss fans’ standard “if this, this, this, this, this, this, this, and this happen, we could win 9 or 10,” which has never aligned ever.

The more-grounded-than-usual optimism was based on the strong close to the 2020 season (4-1 finish), 2021 would be Year 2 of the Lane Kiffin era, and the return of not just Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral but Ole Miss quarterback and Heisman contender Matt Corral. For if Ole Miss had the best quarterback in the conference, all things were possible.

As we know, since the season has come to pass, Ole Miss was one overdue injury bill away from an almost unthinkable 11-1* season. Had Ole Miss escaped its creditors against Auburn, that meant we would’ve likely watched the Iron Bowl with a trip to Atlanta and the college football playoff on the line.

If that was the reality on November 27th, I don’t feel confident I would’ve handled it like an adult with responsibilities. Specifically, I speak of the moment where Auburn head coach Bryan Harsin did NOT go for two in the first overtime when he had a chance to reduce the entire game to one play.

That coward got what he deserved, and, upon reflection, perhaps it was for the best. Personally, I did not need any legal drama involving a deranged man (ME) driving from Austin to Auburn overnight (while wearing a diaper) to stand in his yard and scream disparaging things at him while he’s inside his house. Dodged a bullet there, friends.

Now, for one last time with the 2021 Ole Miss team, let’s reflect on what we know about this group, as our remaining questions have been answered.

*You could also say Ole Miss was a better two-point play call by Kendall Briles from 9-3, but let us not pay attention to the hypothetical man behind the curtain.

What We Know

Matt Corral, our Southern California son

When you watch the greats, no matter the sport, they all have moments where they do something you’ve never seen before. Moments when you’re not even emotionally invested in the game, yet you end up screaming in your home.

For example, Steph Curry has made approximately 2.3 billion three-pointers since this moment in 2016, but it’s what always comes to mind first when I think about him:

Same for Aaron Rodgers, he of the “my doctor is a reality TV show host-turned podcaster” family of brain worms. He’s made a thousand spectacular throws since this one, but I still can’t believe the Hail Mary he threw against Arizona in the playoffs also in 2016:

(Showing you this video instead of something high quality because the NFL blocks any broadcast version from being embedded; the link above has the NBC broadcast of it.)

Obviously, I’d be remiss not to include SWAG Kelly at the height of his flawless execution:

And if you go down enough YouTube wormholes, you can find examples from whatever great player you want.

I’m not sure when I see Matt Corral’s name in the future or hear a mention of him that I will immediately recall a singular moment like the ones above. I say this after seeing him make great throws on great throws with HIGH VELOCITY or impossible mileage like this one against Arkansas:

He made difficult throws look easy and possessed the ability to make throws only a handful of people on this planet can make. All of these things are wonderful and showcase his skillset, but my lasting image of Corral won’t include any of that.

When I think of Matt Corral, I’ll remember the 36 days in October and November of 2021 when he had one healthy leg, an injury-riddled receiving corps, and missing starting offensive linemen, and he refused yield*. Not only did he demand that of himself but of his teammates too**.

*His performances in the Tennessee and Auburn games were especially inspiring and cemented him as a, to steal from the FOOTBALL GUY lexicon, foxhole guy.

**It reminds me of this quote from Michael Jordan in the best moment of ‘The Last Dance.’ Note: To those who don’t click that link, I’m not comparing him to Jordan because I am not insane. It’s about leaders holding themselves and their teammates accountable.

As a result, Ole Miss went 5-1 over that stretch and gave a healthier version of themselves a chance to win the tenth game of the season in the Egg Bowl, which seemed impossible in early November.

Corral’s greatness was always on display when he showcased his superior physical skills, but what he did over those five weeks without his full compliment of skills and the skills of those around him was something I’ve never seen as an Ole Miss fan. Given every chance to say we don’t have it (and be totally justified in doing so!), he didn’t give in and produced results.

I’ve said it before, it was a privilege to watch him play, and I look forward to one last performance in an Ole Miss uniform.

A final aside: Corral will become the second Ole Miss quarterback ever to break the 4,000 total yards barrier, joining the aforementioned SWAG Kelly, who hit 4,542 total yards in 2015.

BONUS ASIDE: If I were president, and praise the good Lord above I am not, I would give Matt Corral the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The defense became what we hoped

I mentioned in the pre-Egg Bowl edition of this show that the Ole Miss defense did this in the weeks prior to Thanksgiving night:

  • Liberty - 81 plays, 5.6 yards/play, 14 points allowed
  • Texas A&M - 71 plays, 5.3 yards/play, 19 points allowed
  • Vanderbilt - 93 plays, 4.9 yards/play, 17 points allowed

Against Mississippi State, they faced 80 plays, allowed 5.25 yards/play, and gave up 21 points, with 7 coming in garbage time. Sure, they caught some breaks, but here were the Bulldogs’ second-half drives prior to the touchdown with 7 minutes to play:

  • 4 plays, 10 yards, punt
  • 4 plays, 11 yards, punt
  • 8 plays, 31 yards, turnover on downs
  • 5 plays, 25 yards, turnover on downs

During that time, Ole Miss stretched its lead from 10-6 to 24-6. Quite the performance to close out the year.

They were certainly not an overwhelming group, but they created enough havoc (finished 6th in the country in sacks), helped Ole Miss finish 10th in turnover margin, and stopped giving up devastating explosive plays (30th in points/play allowed). Not to mention during the 36 days of Corral squeezing just enough out of the offense, this group played their best football, giving Ole Miss a chance to win when their offense wasn’t at its best.

A salute to the players and coaches on that side of the ball for believing in what they were doing and getting better and better at, as Baylor coach Dave Aranda likes to say, their craft.

The offense will play left handed or right handed

In one of the earlier versions of this post, I mentioned how Lane Kiffin has repeatedly said, which is always ignored, that they will focus on whatever is working on offense. If a defense focuses on taking away the run, then they’ll throw 50 times a game. If a defense plays two-high safeties and wants to give up nothing over the top, 50 runs ahoy.

However, for the second year in a row, Ole Miss finished as the SEC’s top rushing offense, BUT MUH NARRUHTIVES. Part of that was due to Corral’s injury and those of his receivers, but also because Ole Miss had three really good running backs in Jerrion Ealy, Snoop Conner, and Henry Parrish Jr.

Even with injuries related to the passing game and Corral’s ability to run, which opens things for the offense as a whole, Ole Miss finished third in the conference in passing yards. GET YOU AN OFFENSE THAT CAN DO BOTH, FAM.

Although the Lane Kiffin/Jeff Lebby partnership has come to a close, one of the most impressive things they did is create an ambidextrous offense. A rarest of birds in the history of Ole Miss football, particularly in the modern era.

Finally...

Who knows what will happen in 2022, but we get to enjoy this team one more time before life moves on. And not just this team, but a version of this team that will be as healthy as it has been since early September.

/sees that -2 number

GIDDY-UP.

I hope as many of you as possible make it to New Orleans (if you see me, I will only charge $5 for an autograph/picture), do some hollerin’ in a winning effort, and experience The Dungeon on Toulouse. If you know, you know, fam.