Ole Miss cannot lose Lane Kiffin. Not when Rebels are this close

OXFORD, Miss. – Shower him with cash. Fill his belly with Ajax. Shackle him to a buyout, pump up the Grove Collective or build him a statue.

Whatever it takes, Ole Miss, do not lose Lane Kiffin to Auburn.

And now, in Kiffin’s third season as football coach?

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Literally, one play would have flipped this outcome.

What if Zach Evans had moved the chains on fourth-and-2 from the 12-yard line in the first quarter?

What if Jaxson Dart had spotted Jonathan Mingo open downfield midway through the fourth quarter instead of dumping a pass to Quinshon Judkins?

What if Kiffin had ordered a handoff to Judkins on first down from the Alabama 14-yard line with 1:44 to play, trailing by six? Instead, Dart threw an incompletion and put Ole Miss behind the sticks. (Kiffin called a good game, but he wasn’t above error. Judkins, the team’s best player, needed the ball on a first-down handoff in that situation.)

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Ole Miss had multiple opportunities to uppercut Alabama. It needed to convert just one.

One play separated No. 11 Ole Miss (8-2, 4-2 SEC) from No. 9 Alabama (8-2, 5-2) on Saturday inside a sold-out Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.

This is not a vintage Alabama team, but do you think that would have stopped Ole Miss fans from reveling in a rare victory over Nick Saban? Fans wrapped in blankets and winter coats were ready to celebrate what would have been the Rebels’ first win over Alabama since 2015.

They were forced to ponder, oh, what could have been.

Alabama 30, Ole Miss 24.

‘Make one more play,” Kiffin said, when I asked him how Ole Miss can elevate from being a neat side story to beating Alabama.

“There’s not some magic formula of, ‘We got to go change all those things or do all these things different.’ Games come down to one possession, one-play games like that. One side makes the plays and finds a way to win.”

Kiffin, 47, is a top-10 coach thriving in a job that doesn’t rank among college football’s 25 best, at least not historically.

That dichotomy, coupled with Kiffin’s well-traveled past – he’s coached four college programs, plus an NFL team – explains why his name regularly surfaces when a marquee job opens.

Auburn is the shiniest vacancy on the coaching carousel. The Tigers have won seven SEC championships since Ole Miss’ last conference title in 1963, but Ole Miss has leapfrogged Auburn under Kiffin.

Kiffin doesn’t need to become Auburn’s coach to beat Alabama. He just needs one more well-executed play.

Put differently, Ole Miss is a Bryce Young away from contending for the SEC Championship.

Alabama’s quarterback delivered a performance becoming of a Heisman Trophy winner. He put his team on his back, after Alabama trailed at halftime. He catapulted the Crimson Tide to a victory that, in many respects, it had little business capturing.

Dart showed moxie, but he doesn’t have the field vision or the clutch delivery of Young. Few do.

On this day, Alabama possessed the best quarterback in the building.

That may not be permanent.

The Rebels are set to return Dart, Judkins and a veteran offensive line in 2023. Ole Miss will need to reload at wide receiver and in the secondary, but if Kiffin re-enters the “Portal King” lab, the Rebels could be a top-10 team next season.

While transfer acquisitions highlight these Rebels, Kiffin signed Judkins out of Pike Road, Alabama. He’s the SEC’s best freshman. A three-star recruit, Alabama didn’t offer him. Judkins broke a Rebels single-season record Saturday with his 15th rushing touchdown.

Not that Kiffin wanted to hide behind stats.

‘I don’t really give a (poop) about how many yards we had, how close the game was,’ Kiffin said. ‘We didn’t win the game. Two years ago, I walked off this field, and I said that we didn’t come here to cover (betting) spreads.

“We didn’t win the game. Maybe some other places, that’s good, or it’s been good here in the past. It ain’t good enough.

“We came here to win, to beat Alabama, and we didn’t do it.’

OK, not quite the second coming of Tim Tebow’s “Promise” speech, but Ole Miss should plaster this Kiffin quote on a banner inside the team facility, because the program embodies this mindset right now. Moral victories are passé.

Ole Miss matched a program record with 10 victories last season. It is positioned to match – or even exceed – that mark this season.

That no one thinks 10 wins is the pinnacle reflects this program’s trajectory under Kiffin.

“Since Lane Kiffin got here,” fifth-year senior cornerback Miles Battle said, “that’s definitely been our mentality – have a pro mindset. We try to go out and win every game, no matter what it is, no matter who we play … We’re going out there to win.”

The Rebels will keep winning, and they can even beat Alabama – so long as they make one more play, and Kiffin does not trade his white Ole Miss hoodie for an Auburn visor.

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer.

This post appeared first on USA TODAY