Every now and then you see first-year coaches show glimmers of promise at major programs -- at times more than you'd expect given the breadth of rebuilds and the necessary growing pains that come with it. Such is the case at Tennessee under Josh Heupel, a hire that received more criticism than praise when the Volunteers gave him keys to the orange Cadillac at the time of his arrival.
Further south in Mississippi, Lane Kiffin showed similar progress in Year 1 and is trying to level up in Year 2 with Ole Miss approaching the elite realm of the sport ranked No. 10 in the new AP Top 25. For a program just two years removed from the SEC's abyss, the Rebels have been altered with Kiffin directing the ship. He's proving that instantaneous change can happen when mindset and philosophy intertwine with principles established early.
This is the most complete Ole Miss team since Hugh Freeze led the Rebels to the Sugar Bowl a handful of years ago, and that's a viable goal heading into Saturday's game at No. 18 Auburn. Quarterback Matt Corral and the Rebels step on the field with a newfound confidence they're going to win every game, and they've played like it this fall.
Tennessee's near miss at Alabama
Don't let the final score fool you. Two plays is all that separated Tennessee from having the defending national champions on the ropes in the fourth quarter of Saturday night's 28-point loss at Alabama that finally unraveled in garbage time.
That's how close this team, with an incomplete roster, is from competing with the best in the SEC, and Tennessee has done it in short order during Heupel's first season. The Vols are even displaying confidence and swagger not seen from the program in years.
SEC officiating has been porous this season, and this is not intended to magnify another folly, but Alabama QB Bryce Young's goal-line fumble on the first play of the fourth quarter ended up being the first of two nails in Tennessee's coffin. Young charged through the middle of the Tennessee defense from the 6-yard line and lost control of the ball before crossing the goal line after a hit by Jaylen McCollough. Three Tennessee defenders converged, and the play was called a touchdown on the field after Young successfully recovered the loose ball at the bottom of the pile.
The fight for the football was disputed after the stadium lights dimmed and flashed almost simultaneously with Young's dive, customary at many venues these days to celebrate scores with the crowd with lighting effects. Heupel galloped toward the side judge, asking for an explanation. After review, the call was upheld.
The nail that sealed Tennessee's fate was QB Hendon Hooker's lone mistake during an otherwise noteworthy outing, a miscommunication two possessions after Young's scramble touchdown resulting in a turnover. Receivers within Heupel's offensive scheme often run choice routes, and Hooker likely expected his man to run an out to the first-down marker, but the opposite happened. Hooker's throw was on time but behind his intended target after signals got crossed and the pass landed directly in the chest of Alabama's Jalyn Armour-Davis, who raced 47 yards to the Vols' 19-yard line.
Benefiting from a pass interference call on second down, it took Alabama only four plays from there to widen its gap to three touchdowns with 8:51 to play. That was that. While he disagreed with the ruling on the Young fumble, Heupel didn't offer up excuses for the loss.
"Obviously, I felt like going into the fourth quarter we had an opportunity to compete and find a way to win the football game," Heupel said. "I'm proud of the effort and strain that our guys played with all night long. We just didn't play smart enough, in particular on the offensive side of the ball."
Sweet season at Ole Miss
Keith Carter is living it up in Oxford, Mississippi. The program's athletic director, credited with landing Kiffin two years ago, made the tough decision to axe long-time friend Matt Luke as coach just 10 days after his full-time promotion to his current position. The rest is history. When you have competence and full buy-in within your athletic department, winning happens. It helps when you can bring a coach of Kiffin's caliber in and then get out of his way, too.
Bowl eligibility used to mean something at Ole Miss, a program not yet spoiled by the riches of one or two games defining a season. But now? Six wins is a low-end goal. Kiffin took home a $50,000 bonus for Saturday's win at LSU, the Rebels' sixth of the season, but getting to the postseason was expected this fall with Corral returning at quarterback and several other playmakers remaining on campus.
Ole Miss has handled that pressure. It exited Week 8 with an outside shot at still reaching the SEC Championship Game. If the Rebels take care of business against Auburn this weekend and win out, they're an Crimson Tide loss to the Tigers in the Iron Bowl away from playing in Atlanta against No. 1 Georgia.
And yet, no one is talking about that scenario. It's unlikely, sure, but would you want to be tasked with stopping Corral and this offense the rest of the way? Ole Miss is taking the final five games on a week to week basis, but at worst, it will play in a New Year's Six game if Ole Miss finishes 11-1.
That would pay off in a big way on the recruiting trail and establish sizable momentum moving into the offseason.