Sugar Bowl: Ole Miss players, coaches describe 2021 season as ‘special’
Published 4:13 pm Saturday, January 1, 2022
By Jake Davis
The Oxford Eagle
Special. That word was used over and over again by players and staff alike to describe their experience with this year’s Rebels squad.
“It’s been really special to be a part of something like this… to win all these games and be on a stage like this,” said offensive lineman Nick Broeker. “This regular season alone we’ve won more games than my first two years combined.”
Today’s Sugar Bowl against Big 12-champion Baylor is a major milestone for an Ole Miss program that just two years ago finished 4-8.
“These guys, to this point in their careers, they never won more than six games in a season, never been a part of all these things and [the] Sugar Bowl and all the great things we’ve accomplished as a team,” co-defensive coordinator DJ Durkin said.
When head coach Lane Kiffin took the job in Oxford, he inherited a team that had not finished above .500 since 2015. The Rebels had just finished a three-year bowl ban following an NCAA investigation into recruiting violations committed under former coach Hugh Freeze. Now, the school is celebrating their second straight bowl berth and a chance to win 11 games in a season for the first time in program history.
“The people that I came in with that are on this team, they’re the same ones that were with us when we had five wins, six wins, four wins,” quarterback Matt Corral said. “They were with us when we were at the bottom of the pits and now, nothing changed, just scheme and buying in.”
“[It’s] just a great opportunity for us to be able to go win 11 games for the first time in the history of the school and that matters,” offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby said. “Being able to do something that’s never been done in the history of the school is going to mean a lot to these kids and mean a lot to us as staff.”
The difference between Kiffin’s approach and the previous staff’s was apparent to players immediately.
“With Coach Kiffin and everybody, you know, it’s all about breeding excellence and that’s something they’ve really instilled in us,” said Broeker. “It’s not okay just to be close in these games… we try and win every time we step on the field.”
“When Lane [Kiffin] came in he turned it all around and now we can possibly go 11-2,” running back Snoop Conner said. “That’s a big deal for us and the whole Ole Miss nation.”
The attitude around the program has changed dramatically in the two seasons since Kiffin took over, and that change is a major reason why Ole Miss is in a position to win their seventh Sugar Bowl in school history.
“It’s been a great thing to be a part of,” Durkin said. “I totally feel like we’ve seen, you know, guys change their day-to-day, how they feel, how they operate, what they do. I think that has a lot to do with it.”
It wasn’t always smooth sailing. Last year the team finished 4-5 in the regular season and snuck their way into the Outback Bowl. That game proved to be a turning point for the program, jump-starting their rapid ascension to one of the top programs in the SEC.
“It gave us our work ethic to go into the next season for sure. It gave us something to look forward to, it gave us hope,” Corral said. “It was a bigger win than people really realize just because, one, it was the first bowl game that we went to in a long time and, two, it was the start of something bigger.”
After years of disappointment with no end in sight, Kiffin breathed a breath of fresh air into a program hungry to prove itself on the national stage. Now they are a win away from showing the country that they belong in the elite tier of college football.