The Grove is one of the best tailgating scenes in sports, let alone SEC and college football. The sights, sounds and sensations in The Grove on a crisp October Saturday in Oxford, Miss., are second to none. That’s quite a scene-setter for a college football Saturday in the South.
Matt Zemek 14Powers.com
Here’s another scene-setter: Jaxson Dart is battling former Oklahoma State quarterback Spencer Sanders and ballyhooed transfer Walker Howard for the Ole Miss starting quarterback spot under the watchful eye of Lane Kiffin. We can talk about so many other aspects of this Ole Miss team in 2023, but they all take second place to this QB derby and what kind of results it produces.
Lane Kiffin has matured as a coach. He understands the importance of defense. His USC teams a decade ago were pillow-soft (except for the 2011 team which beat Chip Kelly and Oregon on the road but was ineligible to play in the Pac-12 Championship Game or any other postseason game). He didn’t pay attention to all the details. He thought he knew more than he did. A few years of Nick Saban Boot Camp at Alabama, followed by a necessary tour of duty in the Group of Five world at Florida Atlantic – the kind of coaching stop he always needed in order to learn more about the craft of program-building – gave him the tools he needed to be a better head coach. “Failing upward” to the Oakland Raiders, Tennessee Volunteers, and then USC without having put in significant time as a head coach gave him the wrong career trajectory. He was thrown into high-profile roles he wasn’t yet ready for. At Ole Miss, he looks the part of a prepared head coach … because he is one. His ability to field good defenses and insist on toughness helped Ole Miss reach the Sugar Bowl a few years ago. That 2021 team played physical football and did not get shoved around. Last year, Ole Miss regressed, but the season would have been so much worse if the Rebels weren’t competent on defense. Their close win over Kentucky was a defense-created result. Kiffin, in 2012 or 2013, would have allowed last season to unravel into a disaster. The new Kiffin offered stability even if the results weren’t as good as he hoped for.
Now, however, in 2023, Kiffin – having proved he can tend to the defensive side of the ball instead of neglecting it – needs to get back to his sweet spot: developing quarterbacks. He turned Matt Corral into a Heisman Trophy contender. Now he needs to get at least one of his quarterbacks to reach that level of performance and quality. Some will debate which player that should be, and that’s a perfectly good debate to have, but what matters most is that the QB room in Oxford creates elite production, because that’s how Ole Miss can vault past LSU and Alabama and reach the top of the SEC West, punching its first-ever ticket to Atlanta.
Yes, Ole Miss is not favored to win the division, and it shouldn’t be. LSU and Alabama have established reputations and track records. They have better, more proven coaches. They have more depth. However, after a 2022 season in which LSU (as pleasantly surprising as it was) lost a bunch of games and Alabama went 10-2 in the regular season (a disaster by normal Saban standards) and now brings Tyler Buchner from Notre Dame along with offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, the SEC West feels more open and volatile than it has in some time. LSU and Bama do not have dominant, heavyweight teams, or at least, they have a few significant flaws which could potentially be exploited.
Ole Miss and the other teams chasing Bama and LSU this year are not teams you would trust to get the job done – they haven’t earned the benefit of the doubt the way Brian Kelly and Nick Saban have – but they certainly have the proverbial “puncher’s chance” if they can put it all together.
For Ole Miss, that means extracting maximum value and production from the QB spot.
Maybe it’s Jaxson Dart, the transfer from USC who has obvious natural tools but didn’t put all the pieces together last season. Maybe one more year will enable his talents to spill out in full flower on the field this fall.
Maybe it’s Sanders, who quarterbacked Oklahoma State within an eyelash of the 2021 College Football Playoff, but whose brutal performance in the Big 12 Championship Game against Baylor cost his Cowboys dearly. Will the memory of that failure, plus the guidance of Kiffin, enable Sanders to become a significantly better college quarterback and make the leap which can prove decisive for Ole Miss?
Walker Howard is more of a mystery, but Kiffin can certainly develop Walker over the course of the season so that if the injury bug hits the other QBs in the room, the Rebels’ floor won’t fall nearly as much as the experts might first think.
This quarterback conversation can’t end without also noting that since there’s such an abundance of talent in the room, Kiffin certainly has the option of doing what Steve Spurrier did at Florida in the 1997 game in which his Gators upset No. 2 Florida State and knocked Bobby Bowden’s Seminoles out of the race for the national championship. Spurrier alternated Doug Johnson and Noah Brindise one or two plays at a time. Johnson had the big downfield gun for an arm, while Brindise could throw short passes and execute finesse plays in smaller areas of the field. The juggling act brought diversity and balance to the Florida offense, throwing Florida State a curveball it couldn’t quite figure out. Florida scored 32 points against a very strong FSU defense, scoring the upset which changed the course of the 1997 season.
Lane Kiffin doesn’t have to ride with only one guy, and Spencer Sanders didn’t come to Oxford to watch games with a backwards cap and a clipboard from the sidelines. There certainly seems to be room for Dart to start but give way to Sanders for a few drives or plays per game in which Kiffin can design packages suited to Sanders’ skill set. Dart would gain the benefit of being able to observe some plays during games so that he can constantly learn while not having to think the fate of the whole team rests solely on his shoulders.
It would be great if Jaxson Dart becomes a superstar, and if it’s clear he’s becoming Matt Corral 2.0, then Kiffin can shelve the two-QB rotation idea. However, if Dart is less than Caleb Williams on the field, there should be room to use Spencer Sanders, incorporate him into the offense, and give Ole Miss multiple ways of attacking opposing defenses. If Kiffin can make the puzzle pieces fit, Ole Miss could be better than many expect in 2023.