When Matt Corral went down with an apparent right ankle injury during the first quarter of the Sugar Bowl, it effectively ended this stage of the Kiffin era.
Kiffin said his “mind raced with a lot of thoughts” when he saw his star quarterback on the turf in anguish.
One of my first thoughts: Well, this game is over.
I’m unconvinced No. 8 Ole Miss would have defeated No. 6 Baylor with Corral. Without him, the Rebels had little chance. One of the nation’s best offenses became ill equipped to solve one of the nation’s best defenses. Baylor won 21-7.
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After tying a program record with 10 victories this season, the Rebels head into a post-Corral future marked by uncertainty. Namely, who will be the Rebels’ quarterback in 2022?
This also marks a fork in the road of Kiffin’s tenure. He proved throughout his first two seasons at Ole Miss that he can cook when given ingredients. Now, Kiffin must show he also knows how to shop for them.
In other words, we know Kiffin can coach. But coaching a team and building and sustaining a program are different tasks, and Kiffin hasn’t proven he can do the latter – in part because he’s never remained at one place long enough to have the opportunity.
Sustaining success at Ole Miss will mark the tallest task of Kiffin’s career.
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The Rebels aren’t strangers to good seasons. They capped the 2015 season in the Sugar Bowl after reaching the Peach Bowl the previous season. The 2003, 2008 and ’09 seasons ended in the Cotton Bowl. But prolonged success has escaped the Rebels’ grasp. Ole Miss last mounted back-to-back 10-win seasons in 1959-60.
Despite the Rebels’ success in Kiffin’s second season and a particularly active coaching carousel, the coach who has never been averse to changing jobs remains in Oxford. Ole Miss awarded Kiffin a raise and an extension, although Mississippi state law limits Kiffin’s contract to four years while several coaches at programs in other states reset the bar for contracts by inking 10-year deals in 2021.
Kiffin remaining in the Ole Miss saddle is good for the Rebels, and perhaps for Kiffin, as well. This is his chance to prove his staying power.
Doing so starts with Kiffin identifying and developing his next quarterback.
Freshman Luke Altmyer received his most extensive playing time of the season in relief of Corral.
Entering a high-stakes game against a menacing defense became Altmyer’s welcome-to-the-big-leagues moment. He flashed moments of promise, but his overall production – 15-of-28 passing with a touchdown and two interceptions – suggested that handing him the reins might put Ole Miss in a flimsy position next season.
For now, Altmyer is the leading option.
You would think quarterbacks would see Corral’s two seasons of success – he’s a projected first-round NFL draft pick – in Ole Miss’ aggressive, up-tempo offense and line up to be his replacement.
But the Rebels’ 2022 recruiting class does not include a single signature or commitment from a quarterback. They’ve been quiet amid an active transfer market that includes the transfers of Spencer Rattler from Oklahoma to South Carolina; Quinn Ewers from Ohio State to Texas; Bo Nix from Auburn to Oregon; Kedon Slovis from Southern Cal to Pittsburgh; and Dillon Gabriel from UCF to Oklahoma.
Ole Miss could have benefited from any of them.
The shelves aren’t empty. Oklahoma quarterback Caleb Williams announced this week he’s entering the transfer portal.
While finding more quarterback talent is Kiffin’s top offseason charge, a related task is ensuring this offensive system will remain potent following the exit of offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby, who left for the same role at Oklahoma.
Lebby, the son-in-law of former Baylor coach Art Briles, became an architect of Ole Miss’ Briles-like brand of offense.
The winds of change blow through Ole Miss, but its lead man remains. This is the intermission before we learn whether Kiffin can supply a second act that is as good as the opening.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: Lane Kiffin approaches his biggest challenge with Ole Miss football