It’s a question on all of our minds as the countdown to week one continues — Will the college football season start on time?
It’s been three months since the suspension of the NBA caused a domino effect that left the world of sports in a state of flux, but as of late, there are reasons for optimism. The PGA Tour and NASCAR have resumed, the NBA, NHL, and MLS are preparing for a return to competition, and on college campuses across the country, voluntary workouts began this week.
Ole Miss is currently scheduled to begin the Lane Kiffin era on September 5th (or 6th if reports hold true) against Baylor, so with signs of normalcy mounting, does the new Rebel head coach believe his squad will take the field at NRG Stadium in Houston as planned?
“I don’t know how confident I am,” Kiffin said during a Zoom meeting with the media Wednesday. “That changes kind of weekly to me. I sometimes think, ‘Oh, it’s going to be fine.’ Because our kids are coming back here and starting to work out. There are other times I say, ‘I don’t know how we’re going to play with this still going on’.”
As for what’s causing his reservations, Kiffin continued on to say: “You’re going to go into weeks where all of a sudden that team is down 15 players and eight defensive backs because corona got into the DB room. Now you have no idea who’s going to play that week. You might have to sit everyone in that DB room for two weeks. How do you play?’”
As student-athletes and staff members return to campus, plans and precautions are in place to ensure social distancing, masks are being worn in facilities, and tests are being administered, but to Kiffin’s point, there’s no such thing as social distancing when the games begin.
The pandemic has already put Ole Miss behind the 8-ball with the cancellation of spring practice. Kiffin, who was hired back in December, acknowledged that there’s a long way to go in the process of building relationships with his team and the spring would’ve been a perfect time to do just that.
“This situation is not ideal for a first-year staff, probably creating more issues than I thought. Spring ball, you really get to know your players,” he said. “You’re on the field with them. You’re interacting with them and putting faces with names. They get to know you and how you can help them on the field. We missed all of that. Unfortunately, when we were in our meetings last Monday talking about all of the stuff going on nationally and just listening to the kids, I just realized how little I know our kids, especially as a head coach. Position coaches have had some meetings and gotten to know them, but we’re behind obviously football-wise, but we’re really behind relationship-wise,” he said.
Prior to the surreal stoppage of sports, install meetings did take place, but the Rebels will have to wait for on-field reps as they implement Kiffin’s offensive system that helped guide Alabama to a national title in 2015 during his stint as the Crimson Tide OC. The longer the wait, the more realistic it is that the playbook will be limited early on, which Kiffin floated as a possibility.
When it comes to who will be in charge of executing the Ole Miss offense, the absence of spring practice means that the presumed QB competition between Matt Corral and John Rhys Plumlee will have to be decided entirely in the summer/early fall.
“We try to be positive, but you have to be factual also,” Kiffin said when asked about the loss of spring practice. “That hurt us in evaluation. Plumlee probably would’ve fallen behind I assume just off of baseball and the amount of time for us to evaluate and work with him and throwing the ball in the system. In that sense, it probably neutralized it in terms of those two with no one having an advantage.”
Redshirt freshman Grant Tisdale withdrew his name from the transfer portal and will compete for the job as well.
Off the field, the death of George Floyd has sparked an ongoing dialogue about race relations in America. In Oxford, the Ole Miss Athletic Department participated in a ‘Unity Walk’ this past weekend, an experience that Kiffin discussed on Wednesday.
“I think it was a great event, a great start of things around campus here and with the athletic department. Personally, I really liked the experience because you have to get comfortable being uncomfortable. That was a little bit different. Whenever you’re doing something you haven’t really done before—the walk itself and the chance there with the players—it was good. That’s what a lot of this is about: change. With change, a lot of the time it’s about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable to where it becomes the norm,” he explained.
Whether it’s the current design of the state flag or the location of a Confederate monument on the Ole Miss campus, Mississippi has its own unique challenges during this time, and Kiffin knows his players are looking for action.
“I don’t think by any means are they satisfied,” Kiffin said. “This is like opening day for baseball—162 games and this is the first game. They’re going to want to see change. They’re going to wait and see, was this just an act or something that was done for publicity or to check the box. Or are we going to really follow through on [Athletic Director] Keith Carter’s lead of what he talked about with this being the beginning.”
Football may be on the back burner as our nation continues to heal, but we can continue to await its inevitable return as sports have a way of bringing people together.