No one saw the best season in Ole Miss history coming. Except Lane Kiffin and his players.
STARKVILLE — Just because it had to be this year doesn't mean it was always going to happen.
Two years into Lane Kiffin's tenure as the football coach at Ole Miss, the Rebels have summited their highest peak in school history. With a 31-21 win over Mississippi State on Thursday, Ole Miss (10-2, 6-2 SEC) finished off its first 10-win regular season in school history. Johnny Vaught never did it. Billy Brewer never did it. David Cutcliffe and Hugh Freeze never did it.
Just Kiffin. Two years removed from a four-year run of no bowl games. Half a decade removed from NCAA sanctions and recruiting restrictions and all the embarrassment that came from the end of the Freeze era.
Now Kiffin has Ole Miss poised to return to the New Year's Six.
"I would've foreseen this if you asked me at the start of the season," Kiffin said. "I don't know if you would've asked me two years ago necessarily when we first got here."
But it always had to be this team. It had to be the team led by the last holdovers from Freeze's final recruiting class. The team led by fifth- and sixth-year seniors like Braylon Sanders, Ben Brown and Jaylon Jones. The team led by junior college transfers who came back for a COVID afforded final season like Sam Williams and Dontario Drummond. The team led by transfers Jake Springer, Otis Reese and Mark Robinson and by a future-first round NFL Draft pick at quarterback playing his final season in Matt Corral.
There's a world where as many as 14 starters from this team aren't in Oxford again next year. Maybe Kiffin doesn't deserve credit for the turnaround. Maybe it belongs to the veterans who stuck it out through ups and downs.
Maybe it belongs to someone like Williams who saw how the Rebels acted when he arrived in 2019 and spent three seasons working on himself to make sure that attitude changed.
"Now when we lose, even if we lose by one point, it's not OK," Williams said. "We don't see nobody talking, laughing, playing. I can't say that for my first year. If we lose, it hurts. If you would come to one of our practices after a loss, you'd be like 'These dudes are playing a game in practice.' It's just a change of mindset. Nobody likes to be a loser."
Or maybe it comes down to Corral. If this team was a gingerbread house, Corral was the icing this season. He held the Rebels together with his arm, his legs, his leadership and his Evel Knievel-esque thirst for danger and physical harm.
Ohio State's C.J. Stroud and Alabama's Bryce Young have better numbers. But it's hard to imagine a world where any quarterback other than Corral did more for his offense this season.
"(The coaches) wanted it to come from me from the beginning, to be the believer and the leader," Corral said. "That's what I did. It wasn't easy. But I had my teammates to have my back. In each position room, there was always one or a couple leaders. I've said this before: I couldn't be more proud of those guys because they demanded more of themselves and their teammates. That's the camaraderie we have of leadership and trust."
Corral said he'll play in whatever bowl Ole Miss ends up in if he's healthy. That shouldn't come as a surprise. That's just kind of the way this team operates.
Why wouldn't Corral play? Kiffin isn't one who's sentimental, but he sees something special in this group.
"Every coach always says 'This team's a family.' They say that every year and that's not always true," Kiffin said. "This is one of those unique years where they really are. They protect each other like that and they play for each other like that."
Contact Nick Suss at 601-408-2674 or email@example.com. Follow @nicksuss on Twitter.