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Clarion Ledger’s Nick Suss Talks Ole Miss, Kiffin’s Return To Knoxville

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Each week, Rocky Top Insider will take you behind the scenes with a question and answer with a media member who covers Tennessee’s opponent.

This week, the Clarion Ledger’s Ole Miss beat writer Nick Suss discussed Ole Miss’ fantastic offense, Lane Kiffin’s fourth down aggression and more.

What were the expectations around the Ole Miss program entering the season and how would you assess its first five games?

If your question is ‘Did Ole Miss fans think they’d be 4-1 at this point in this season?’ the answer is almost assuredly yes. Did everyone think it’d happen the way it has? Not exactly. The offense is as advertised, though some of the contributors aren’t who people expected. The defense has been pretty disappointing though. While it’s improved from a year ago, it’s still at or near the bottom of the SEC in just about every category. Year 2 of the Lane Kiffin era was supposed to be the year Ole Miss stopped winning in spite of its defense and started winning balanced games. That hasn’t been the case; Ole Miss is still relying entirely on offense to win.

Matt Corral has been very impressive this season. Where has he improved the most from last season and what makes him so dynamic?

It’s hard to say exactly where he’s improved. He’s smarter with the ball which is leading to a lot fewer turnovers. But I think the real change is his relationship with the offense. Last year he threw to Elijah Moore like a 12-year-old playing Madden throws to his best receiver. This year he’s spreading the ball around and he’s scrambling effectively too. Instead of last year, where Moore was the engine of the offense, Corral has become the engine. That’s kind of made him a little more bust-proof since he has the freedom to play how he wants and find open receivers and backs however he reads the field.

How would you assess Ole Miss’ rushing attack so far this season?

Really good. The offensive line isn’t as good as I thought it would be, but Ole Miss still has four players averaging 49 or more rushing yards per game. It’s a varied rushing attack build behind two good tackles and two good guards that benefits from Corral’s willingness to tuck and run if nothing’s there through the air. Snoop Conner is an effective power back, Henry Parrish is as shifty as anyone in the SEC and Jerrion Ealy has some of the best straight-ahead speed in the league. There’s a reason this team is running for 260 yards a game.

Ole Miss’ defense seemed to have taken a step forward the first few weeks of the season but has looked more like last season’s group the past few weeks. What do you make of the Rebels on the defensive side of the ball?

Last year when Matt Corral threw six interceptions in a game, Lane Kiffin stuck with him. That paid off. This year, the 3-2-6 defense is the weakness. Kiffin is sticking with it. Maybe it pays off eventually. So far, it hasn’t against SEC foes. Teams are running like crazy against Ole Miss and Ole Miss doesn’t seem to have the defensive line depth or secondary depth to keep legs fresh and tackle reliably with emptier boxes. As Kiffin pointed out, going back to the 4-2-5 or 4-3 like last year could very easily produce the same bottom-of-the-SEC results as last year. But through two SEC games, this formation isn’t working either.

How would you explain/describe Lane Kiffin’s fourth down offensive tendencies?

He’s gambling, but he knows he’s playing the best possible hand. There’s a risk-reward analysis to playing the odds. He’s doing it. Playing the odds doesn’t mean you’re going to succeed 100% of the time. That’s because there’s a difference between being right and succeeding. But Kiffin is leaning on the fact that what he’s doing is correct and understanding that that comes with occasional missteps. Traditionalists are always going to doubt people who go against the grain. But it’s also hard to argue with math and right now Kiffin is on team math instead of team tradition.

Score prediction?

Both offenses are better than both defenses. Like Ole Miss’ game against Arkansas last week, defenses are going to get gassed and offenses are going to hit big plays. But I think Corral ultimately has a little more talent and a little more experience in shootouts than Hendon Hooker and that puts the Rebels on top in a toss-up game.

Ole Miss 49, Tennessee 45

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