Maybe Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin will not feel like he is at a high school game this Saturday.
After beating 21.5-point underdog Tulsa, 35-27, in front of a mostly empty Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in the second half last week in Oxford, the No. 14 Rebels (4-0) host No. 7 Kentucky (4-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) in their SEC opener at noon eastern time Saturday on ESPN.
The actual crowd may actually be close to the 64,038 capacity for Kentucky. Ole Miss announced a sellout on Wednesday afternoon.
“When you come out and run out of the tunnel, and it looks like a high school game playing in a college stadium, you can’t let that affect you,” Kiffin said of the Tulsa game. “There’s a home-field advantage for a reason. When it goes the other way, you kind of have that feeling like, ‘Oh, are we still really playing in a game here?’ The players have to fight that.”
Kiffin has fought dwindling crowds at Ole Miss since he became head coach before the 2020 season. He marveled at the crowd of 102,455 at Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium last year – all of whom stayed, barring any medical emergencies or ejections. They threw things on the field, including a golf ball, after the Rebels beat the Vols, 31-26.
“I’ve tried social media here for two years,” Kiffin said of his efforts to attract fans. “We’ll worry about what we can control.”
Kiffin and Ole Miss do have history on their side from a novelty standpoint. This will be the first Kentucky-Ole Miss game anywhere in which both teams are ranked since 1958. Coach Johnny Vaught’s No. 9 Rebels beat Coach Blanton Collier’s No. 14 Wildcats 27-6 on Sept. 27 of that year.
Ole Miss and Kentucky have played 29 times since then, and not once were both teams ranked. Only eight times was one team ranked, and each time that was Ole Miss – in 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1964, 1969, 1970 and 1993. The Wildcats pulled upsets in 1964 (27-21 in Jackson, Mississippi), in 1969 (10-9 in Lexington over Archie Manning) and in 1993 (21-0 in Lexington).
They have met eight times since 1993 – from 2000 through 2020 – with neither team ranked, and Ole Miss won six of those, including 42-41 in overtime in Kiffin’s first year in 2020 in Lexington.
“Yeah, didn’t really know that until you just brought it up,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said Wednesday on the SEC teleconference. “But for us, it’s a matter of, and I’m sure Lane feels the same way, let’s try to stay there. Stay where we’re at or improve. So, obviously, it’s a big game for both of us. He’s done a fantastic job. They’re very good.”
Kentucky last played in Oxford on Oct. 2, 2010, when Joker Phillips was the coach, and Ole Miss won, 42-35. Ole Miss leads the overall series, 29-14-1, with an 8-2 advantage in Oxford.
“I’ve never personally played there, which is different, being this is my 10th season in this league (starting at Kentucky in 2013), and I’ve never been there,” Stoops said. “I don’t know how, but some way, the schedule with the east and the West got a little screwy. I think I’ve played at Alabama like four times, and Ole Miss, we’ve played them twice, but never there. So looking forward to the trip.”
Actually, Stoops has only played at Alabama twice, but it may seem like four times as he lost 34-6 in 2016 and 63-3 in 2020. But still, that is SEC scheduling at its quirkiest.
“But we’re going to fix that issue,” Stoops said, referring to the new SEC scheduling format in the works with Oklahoma and Texas joining the league in 2025 at the latest and commissioner Greg Sankey promising more opponent rotation.
“There’s no model we’ve been presented that doesn’t fix that issue,” Stoop said.
There is no time like now for a Kentucky-Ole Miss match as rare as some of the finest Kentucky bourbons.
Both programs have had their moments – Ole Miss more than Kentucky. But the two have not been this good at the same time since the 1950s when Vaught won SEC titles in 1954 and ’55 (and another one in 1960) and Kentucky won its only SEC title in 1950 under Bear Bryant and had eight winning seasons from 1950-58 under Bryant and Collier.
In fact, Ole Miss and Kentucky are each 15-3 since the end of the 2020 season until now. Only 2020 national champion Alabama and 2021 national champion Georgia are better in the SEC over that span.
“I would’ve taken that,” Kiffin said when asked if he would’ve believed that mark could have been reached after the overtime win over the Wildcats in 2020. “That’s a pretty good number, and I guess Mark might say the same thing, especially playing in the SEC.”
One goal has still managed to elude both, though. Since the SEC went to divisions in 1992 and created the SEC Championship Game, Ole Miss and Kentucky are two of the four not to make it with Vanderbilt and Texas A&M.
“We have a chance to be really good,” said Kiffin, who became the first Ole Miss coach to win 10 regular season games last year. “But a lot of things have to happen.”
Stoops, meanwhile, surpassed Bryant as the coach with the most wins in Kentucky football history with his 61st against Florida, 26-16, on Sept. 10. He is at 63-53 now.
“I imagine both of us are trying like heck to stay there or improve,” Stoops said. “That comes with winning.”
And it has come with a rare show of patience from Kentucky administration, which kept Stoops despite seasons of 2-10, 5-7 and 5-7 over his first three years before winning seasons in five of the next six, including a pair of 10-3 campaigns in 2018 and last year.
“There’s one of those questions you know the answer to about administrations waiting that long,” Kiffin said. “I call that a southern thing – when you ask questions you know the answer to just to confirm your answer. Yeah, administrations don’t wait very long nowadays. It’s the world we live in.”
But Stoops survived. Even his first two winning seasons were not great – 7-6 and 7-6 2016 and ’17.
“Fortunately, for me, I worked with an administration that understand very clearly,” Stoops said. “Everybody knew around here we were making improvement, no matter what the record showed. Our fan base is excited for this trip. I know we’ll have quite a few make the trip.”
There will be more Kentucky fans than there were Tulsa fans last week, which will make Kiffin happy, even if they wear the wrong shade of blue.
“I’m worried about what I can control, and that’s getting our players ready to play,” he said.