Dec 30, 2019; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Florida Gators head coach Dan Mullen prior to a game against the Virginia Cavaliers during the 2019 Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

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Kiffin era opens as Ole Miss hosts No. 5 Florida

The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t change the fact that No. 5 Florida looks ready to challenge for a berth in the College Football Playoff.

Ole Miss, meanwhile, remains a mystery under first-year coach Lane Kiffin.

The teams are set to open their seasons against each other on Saturday in an SEC matchup in Oxford, Miss.

“We haven’t played in forever so I’m excited for us to play,” said third-year Gators coach Dan Mullen, whose team is coming off an 11-2 season. “You keep asking, ‘Hey, how are we going to be this year?’ I don’t know, we’re going to find out on Saturday. We’ve kind of had a weird training camp … so it’ll be good to see what we look like against another team and a quality SEC team.”

Florida’s quest to at least end Georgia’s three-year reign as SEC East champion is fueled by quarterback Kyle Trask, a 6-foot-5, 240-pound senior who was selected last week as preseason first-team all-conference by the league coaches.

Trask stepped in early last season for Feleipe Franks and completed 66.9 percent of his 354 passes for 2,941 yards, 25 touchdowns and seven interceptions. His passing efficiency rating of 156.1 was the best at Florida since Tim Tebow led the nation in 2009 at 164.2.

“I don’t really put that added pressure on myself,” Trask said. “I don’t read a whole lot on social media and get into things like that. I just worry about what is going on in this building and just doing the best that I can to make sure we have the best chance of winning.”

Kiffin is returning to the SEC after serving as Tennessee’s head coach in 2009 and as an Alabama assistant, including offensive coordinator, from 2014-16. He was 27-13 as the head coach at Florida Atlantic in the past three seasons, including a pair of 11-3 campaigns.

Kiffin might have the element of surprise in the opener, schematically, as he takes over for Matt Luke (15-21 in three seasons) and juggles two quarterbacks.

Matt Corral started four games last season and is the superior passer, while speedy freshman John Rhys Plumlee started eight games, gaining favor in then-coordinator Rich Rodriguez’s zone-read attack and rushing for 1,023 yards and 12 touchdowns. Ole Miss is expected to be more pass-heavy under Kiffin — the Rebels ran the ball 63 percent of the time last season.

“One of them is going to start, and there’s a good chance both of them will play,” Kiffin said of his quarterbacks.

Sophomore running back Jerrion Ealy (722 yards, 6.9 per carry) is another threat and is a dangerous kick returner.

Kiffin said he has been looking for more consistency at quarterback through preseason practice.

“It has been interceptions and usually it has been the quarterback,” he said. “Sometimes maybe a tipped pass or something like that, but these are either inaccurate throws or poor decision-making. So, we’ve got to get back to playing like we were initially, because the first scrimmage they were both really good.”

Ole Miss quarterbacks will be facing a fast Florida defense that allowed only 15.5 points per game last season. Marco Wilson and Kaiir Elam are top-notch cornerbacks.

Trask’s top target is potential All-American tight end Kyle Pitts (54 catches, 649 yards, five TDs last season). Florida’s biggest question on offense is the line. Projected starting center Ethan White is out because of a knee injury.

Attendance at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium will be capped at 25 percent, about 16,000, due to COVID-19 protocols to begin the 2020 season.

–Field Level Media

Field Level Media
Sport Writer & Editor
FLM has a North American focus while tying into regional and hyper-local resources – providing the ability to distribute compelling content through the writing of professional journalists. As the U.S. sports content provider to dozens of digital and print media publishers through strategic partnerships with the likes of Reuters and Nielsen Sports, FLM covers the nuts and bolts with a breaking news desk and game event coverage.

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