How good can Ole Miss football be? Way-too-early season predictions for Rebels in 2021

Nick Suss
Mississippi Clarion Ledger
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OXFORD — It's never too early to look ahead to next season.

OK. Maybe it is. But it's still fun.

Ole Miss football is less than a week removed from finishing its season with a 5-5 record and a 26-20 Outback Bowl win against No. 11 Indiana. To finish with a .500 record in Lane Kiffin's first year running the program is impressive in a vacuum, but it's even more impressive given the obstacles of taking over a program amid the COVID-19 pandemic with no spring practice, little summer evaluation time and an oft-depleted roster.

Heading into 2021, Ole Miss is returning a huge chunk of its roster. Elijah Moore, Kenny Yeboah and Royce Newman are moving on to the pros, but the rest of the nucleus from Ole Miss' 2020 No. 3 total offense is returning. A number of defensive players, including linebacker Lakia Henry, edge rusher Sam Williams and defensive back Jaylon Jones, will also be returning for second senior seasons.

So how good can Ole Miss be in 2021? Let's look at all 12 of the games on Ole Miss' schedule and make some way-too-early predictions about the Rebels' record.

Sept. 4: vs. Louisville (in Atlanta)

Ole Miss opens in Mercedes Benz Stadium. Louisville went 4-7, but four of those losses were on the road by seven or fewer points. The Cardinals still boasted the best passing defense in the ACC, allowing 189 yards per game.

Louisville has been active in the transfer market and returns a talented and experienced dual-threat quarterback in Malik Cunningham. This should be a close game, but expect Ole Miss to enter as the favorite and for the Rebels to run through Louisville's defense for 200-plus yards like Notre Dame, Florida State and Virginia Tech did.

Way-too-early prediction: Ole Miss wins close

Sept. 11: vs. Austin Peay

It'll be interesting to see how former Southern Miss interim head coach Scotty Walden does coaching in his first game against an FBS team as an FCS head coach. But this one is pretty open and shut. If Ole Miss is on upset alert in this one, something has gone horribly wrong.

Way-too-early prediction: Ole Miss wins in a rout

Sept. 18: vs. Tulane

Few teams run the ball more or as effectively as Tulane, which should be a test for an Ole Miss run defense that ranked No. 101 nationally. But Tulane only played two top-40 scoring offenses and allowed an average of 44 points. 

Way-too-early prediction: Ole Miss wins, but it's too close for comfort

Nov. 6: vs. Liberty

We can spend the next 10 months hyping up Hugh Freeze's return to Oxford as an opposing head coach. But for now, let's think about the on-field matchup.

Liberty gets attention for its electric offense. But just like when Freeze was at Ole Miss, the defense doesn't get the credit it deserves for being equally great. Both teams will come into this one motivated to prove something. Ole Miss will have the athletic advantage, but Freeze has pulled off an upset or two before.

Way-too-early prediction: Ole Miss wins, but hold on and watch out

SEC Game 1: at Alabama

Let's not overcomplicate things. Ole Miss isn't ready to upset Alabama yet. Sure, the Crimson Tide is losing most of a championship roster and a key coordinator. But that's true every year. Nick Saban might've just signed his best recruiting class and former five-star quarterback Bryce Young is ready to step in and take over for Mac Jones. 

Ole Miss will score a lot of points again, but that probably won't matter.

Way-too-early prediction: Alabama wins another shootout

SEC Game 2: vs. Arkansas 

It took extremely weird circumstances for Arkansas to upset Ole Miss, which has adjusted to the scheme that flummoxed its offense in October. Quarterback Matt Corral picked apart drop-eight coverage in the Outback Bowl, and in other games against that attack, Ole Miss just ran for 250 yards every time.

Expect Ole Miss to be out for revenge and for home-field advantage to come in play in a hard-fought, aggressive game.

Way-too-early prediction: Ole Miss pulls away late to win

SEC Game 3: at Auburn

New Auburn coach Bryan Harsin is the SEC's great unknown for 2021. Quarterback Bo Nix is still the SEC's most inconsistent star. And Auburn's defense figures to be characteristically great, pending a few NFL Draft decisions. 

But Auburn's offensive line needs to be completely rebuilt, and the loss of talent at receiver will be hard to overcome. This one feels like a push, but let's commit to a one-score Ole Miss advantage as of early January.

Way-too-early prediction: Ole Miss wins a nail-biter

SEC Game 4: vs. LSU

There's no way LSU is as bad as it was in 2020. The Tigers are simply too talented to struggle again. LSU is going to bounce back, get healthier and have a new defensive scheme that should return things to normal on the bayou. Plus the freshmen who got experience will be one year better, even if Ole Miss fans can't imagine a way receiver Kayshon Boutte can be any more deadly.

Way-too-early prediction: LSU wins surprisingly decisively

SEC Game 5: at Mississippi State

The Egg Bowl should always be on upset alert, and this year will be no different. Mississippi State's leading passer, leading receiver and two leading rushers were all true freshmen. Expect them to get better. And the defense will return almost all of its key pieces from a group that ranked among the league's best.

Mike Leach doubled his win total from Year 1 to Year 2 at Washington State. Don't be shocked to see a much-improved Bulldogs squad derail a great Ole Miss season next November.

Way-too-early prediction: Mississippi State wins in an upset

SEC Game 6: at Tennessee

Kiffin's return to Neyland Stadium. Fun times to be had. Unless Tennessee doesn't find a fix for a team that gave up nine more points per game than it scored. Then times won't be fun for Tennessee. A loss to Kiffin will surely warm coach Jeremy Pruitt's hot seat even more.

Way-too-early prediction: Ole Miss wins handily

SEC Game 7: vs. Texas A&M

It isn't yet known if Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond is returning for a fifth season or going pro. The same is true of most of Texas A&M's veterans, actually. If they all come back, don't expect this one to be close. If most of them leave, Texas A&M probably still has the advantage. But a narrower one at that. 

Way-too-early prediction: Texas A&M wins, margin TBD

SEC Game 8: vs. Vanderbilt

Vanderbilt probably won't be as historically bad next season as they were in 2020. And Ole Miss won't have Moore to catch every pass again. But it's still Vanderbilt. Even Vanderbilt on an upswing shouldn't be able to slow down Corral and company next year. This one won't be over by halftime again, but this should be an Ole Miss win.

Way-too-early prediction: Ole Miss wins easy

Contact Nick Suss at 601-408-2674 or Follow @nicksuss on Twitter.

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