Kiffin, Leach eras begin & USM looks to avoid 0-3 start – CFB Preview

We’re one day away from game day in the SEC — a day that once felt as if it may never come in 2020. With the arrival of Lane Kiffin at Ole Miss and Mike Leach at Mississippi State, Saturday features one of the most highly-anticipated slate of games across the state in recent memory. Additionally, Southern Miss is looking to avoid an 0-3 start for the first time since 2013.  Below, check out a brief preview for each game. 

Ole Miss vs. Florida (UF -14)

For the first time since 2007, the Florida Gators roll into Oxford where they’ll clash with the Rebels, decked out in powder blue jerseys, in Lane Kiffin’s long-awaited debut. Coming into the 2020 season, the Gators are a trendy pick to dethrone UGA atop the SEC East while the Rebels are more of an unknown with new leadership across the board following a 4-8 2019 season that led to the firing of Matt Luke and one-year coordinators Rich Rodriguez and Mike MacIntyre. New OC Jeff Lebby will call the plays for the Rebel offense and D.J. Durkin and Chris Partridge will split the duties on defense. 

Between the hashmarks, the Gators come into the matchup led by the SEC’s leading returning passer Kyle Trask, but things are less certain on the Ole Miss offense as Kiffin has continued to play his cards close to the vest when it comes to his starting quarterback. Sophomores Matt Corral and John Rhys Plumlee have battled for the job throughout camp after both were part of a directionless two-QB system a season ago. 

“I mean one of them is going to start and there’s a good chance both of them will play,” Kiffin said Monday. 

Corral proved to be the better passer a season ago while Plumlee established himself as an electric threat in the running game leading the team in rushing with 1,023 yards and 12 touchdowns. Whoever gets the nod will have a talented supporting cast with RB Jerrion Ealy and WR Elijah Moore back. The question will become, who else can step up for the Rebel offense? Sophomore wideout Johnathon Mingo and freshman RB Henry Parish are thought to be breakout candidates coming into the 2020 campaign. 

The offense will try to move the ball against a Florida defensive unit that gave up just 15.5 points a season ago and returns key pieces such as LB Zachary Carter, who led the Gators in tackles for loss with seven, and Marco Wilson & Kaiir Elam will be patrolling the secondary. 

Defensively for Ole Miss, depth up front will be a concern, but they’ll be backed up by a solid linebacking core. Sam Williams was reinstated following a brief suspension and is back after leading the Rebels in sacks in 2019 and MoMo Sanogo returns after suffering a season-ending injury last September. Beefing up that line, however, is the addition of DE Tavius Robinson, a transfer from Canada who was granted immediate eligibility. 

Dan Mullen’s Gators lost several key pieces on offense including former Rebel WR Van Jefferson and RB LaMichael Perine, but All-SEC TE Kyle Pitts returns to provide Trask with at least one valuable weapon. 

Kickoff from a 25% filled Vaught-Hemingway Stadium is set for 11 a.m. Remember that you must wear a mask when moving throughout the stadium. 

It will most certainly be a different atmosphere outside of the stadium, as well, due to the fact that tailgating on campus is currently prohibited. 

Mississippi State @ #6 LSU (LSU -16.5) 

The pirate and his air-raid attack have their sights set on the defending champion LSU Tigers as Mike Leach and the Bulldogs travel to Baton Rouge. In one of the most intriguing matchups anywhere in the country, neither team is a known quotient as the Bulldogs overhaul their program’s identity and the Tigers were forced to reload after a historic exodus following their undefeated 2019 campaign, not to mention several opt-outs such as WR Jamar Chase. 

This game will be more about who isn’t there for LSU as Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow and his 50 TD passes along with 13 other starters and both their passing game coordinator and defensive coordinators have moved on. Mississippi native Myles Brennan takes over at QB with shoes the size of Mike the Tiger’s paws to fill. The new faces all over the field present a unique challenge for Leach and Mississippi State. 

“I hope those new faces are worse than the guys that left, okay, but you know intellectually I know some of them will be better but it’s the same thing, so as far as just saying this position, that position, the other position, that’s tougher with them now than it is sometimes because they do have a number of new faces and so, in the end, we can only control what we can control and that’s just us being the best team that we can be because you’re kind of real precise evaluations on their scheme and their personnel are pretty tough this time out of the blocks,” Leach said earlier this week.

With a name like ‘air-raid,’ it’s no secret what the Bulldogs will try to do against the Tiger defense that returns two of the SEC’s best defensive backs in Derek Stingley, Jr. and Jacoby Stevens. Leading the way for the Mississippi State offense will be Stanford transfer K.J. Costello. The former All-Pac 12 quarterback tossed 29 TDs in 2018 while completing 65% of his passes before injuries marred his 2019 season in Palo Alto. The Bulldogs’ biggest threat will line up next to Costello as RB Kylin Hill is back for his senior season after rushing for 1,350 yards a season ago. Hill’s participation in the Bulldog passing attack will likely grow exponentially after totaling just 18 receptions in Joe Moorhead’s offense last year. 

On the outside, WRs Osirus Mitchell and Javonta Payton return to lead the way, and in somewhat of a surprise move, sophomore Garrett Shrader recently swapped his QB wristband for a pair of gloves. 

Mississippi State’s biggest question marks lie on the defensive side of the ball as they aim to replace key contributors like Cam Dantzler, Brian Cole, Willie Gay, and Chauncy Rivers. In new DC Zach Arnett’s 3-3-5 scheme, a lot of young DBs will have to play large roles. 

This trip to Tiger stadium won’t be quite as raucous as those in the past, but 25,000 fans in Baton Rouge will likely be a lot louder than 25,000 fans anywhere else.

Kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m. 

Southern Miss @ Tulane (Tulane -3.5)

The Golden Eagles were seconds away from getting a win in interim head coach Scotty Walden’s debut a week ago, but with that in the past, USM is trying to avoid an 0-3 start to the season in the “Battle for the Bell” with Tulane coming to town. 

In a rematch of the Armed Forces Bowl back in January, these two teams will meet for the second time this calendar year with USM hoping to come out on top after dropping the postseason game 30-13. 

USM’s senior QB Jack Abraham is completing nearly 72% of his passes so far this season, but for the second half of the loss to LA Tech, he was without his top target WR Tim Jones. Earlier this week, Walden stated that Jones, who leads the team with 14 catches and just under 300 yards, should be able to play through a “lower-body injury.”

None of the three running backs in the USM backfield have distinguished themselves to this point as the Golden Eagles are averaging just 3.3 yards per carry. A consistent rushing attack could go a long way in turning things around in Hattiesburg. Frank Gore Jr. currently leads the team with 71 yards on the ground. 

The USM defense will see a familiar face across from them Saturday as Tulane will start former Golden Eagle Keon Howard at QB. Howard appeared in 13 games from 2016-17 in Hattiesburg. 

This game will be a battle of two teams hoping to put blown leads behind them after USM blew a 17-point lead to Louisiana Tech last week while Tulane lost 27-24 to Navy last week after leading 24-0 at halftime. 

Kickoff from M.M. Roberts Stadium is set for 1:30 p.m.