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Ole Miss vs. Mercer: Everything to know about the Rebels’ season-opening game

Ole Miss vs. Mercer: Everything to know about the Rebels’ season-opening game

OXFORD, Miss. — Gameday has finally arrived in Oxford. The Rebels host Mercer in the season-opener for 2023. Here’s a look at the Ole Miss team, the Mercer Bears, the Rebels’ coaching staff, players to watch and more. Hotty Toddy!


• This game will kick off the 129th season of football at Ole Miss.
• The Rebels are 94-29-5 (.754) in season openers and have taken 21 of the last 26 on the field.
• Lane Kiffin begins his fourth season at Ole Miss and 12th overall as a head coach … Kiffin is 7-4 in season openers.
• This marks just the second all-time meeting between Ole Miss and Mercer … The lone prior matchup came in Macon, Georgia 112 years ago on Nov. 4, 1911 … Ole Miss won, 34-0.
• This is the third home season opener for the Rebels in the last six years.
• The Rebels are ranked No. 22 in both the AP Poll and AFCA Coaches Poll … This is the first time since 2016 that Ole Miss has opened the season as a ranked team in three consecutive seasons.
• Ole Miss has been ranked in 30 of the last 32 poll releases, including a streak of 29 across 2021 and 2022.
• Ole Miss is 161-92-7 (.633) all-time during the month of September after vacated wins.
• The Rebels have gone 14-5 at home since 2020 … Ole Miss is 292-115-8 (.713) all-time in Vaught-Hemingway.
• Since 2020, Ole Miss is second in yards per game (511.3 ypg/36 games), third in total yards (18,408) and one of just two Power-5 schools with both a top-10 passing season (2020; No. 7) and top-10 rushing season (2022; No. 3).
• Of the 128 total players on the roster, 59 (46.1%) are brand-new for 2023 … 31 (24.2%) are transfers.
• Sophomore RB Quinshon Judkins returns following historic 2022 campaign … Judkins led SEC, ranked No. 7 in FBS at his school record 1,567 rushing yards.
• Ole Miss shattered nine rushing records in 2022 en route to an SEC leading and FBS No. 3 ground game.
• DE Cedric Johnson was awarded the Chucky Mullins Courage Award and will wear a No. 38 patch this season.


Lane Kiffin is in his fourth season at Ole Miss, where he has led the Rebels to three consecutive bowl berths to start off his time in Oxford. In 11 years at the NCAA level, Kiffin has posted an all-time record of 84-47, including a 23-13 mark at Ole Miss. The Rebels once again ranked amongst the top of the nation in multiple offensive statistics in 2022. Ole Miss was No. 3 nationally in rushing offense (256.6) and No. 8 in total offense (496.4).

Kiffin helped mentor and recruit talented true freshman running back Quinshon Judkins, who set the Ole Miss single-season records in both rushing yards (1,567) and rushing touchdowns (16). Kiffin guided the Rebels to a 10-3 record in 2021, the first 10-win regular season in school history. The Rebels finished the season ranked No. 11 in both the AP and AFCA Coaches Poll, its highest final ranking since 2016. Ole Miss ranked top-20 in the FBS in nine different offensive categories in his first season in 2020, including having the No. 3 team in the country in total offense, shattering the school record with 555.5 yards per game.

In December 2016, Kiffin took over an FAU program that had won a total of nine combined games over the previous three seasons. Kiffin proceeded to take the Owls to new heights over the last three years, including two conference titles and two 10-win seasons. In his head coaching stops at USC, Tennessee and FAU, Kiffin has shown a propensity in helping turn programs around. Kiffin graduated from Fresno State in 1998 after playing quarterback for three seasons (1994-96) for the Bulldogs. He began his coaching career as a student assistant at Fresno State under Pat Hill in 1997 and 1998.


Mercer head coach Drew Cronic is in his fourth season with the Bears and his eighth total as a head coach in 2023. He holds a 57-19 overall career record, a 20-13 record while at Mercer, and is off to a 1-0 start in 2023 after a Week 0 season-opening victory over North Alabama on Aug. 26.

Cronic has been the architect behind an offensive revolution for Mercer over the last three seasons. Under his watch, the Bears have averaged nearly 405 yards and 31.3 points per game, including an eye-popping 38.2 points an outing last season behind more than 470 yards of total offense per game. Those offensive fireworks not only landed Mercer among the nation’s top 25 schools in 10 offensive statistical categories, but also helped his squad notch a program-best seven victories against NCAA Division I schools.

Cronic came to Mercer after two seasons at Lenoir-Rhyne in 2018 and 2019, where he turned the program around from 3-8 in 2017 to a combined 25-3 mark across his two years there. Cronic was named the AFCA National Coach of the Year in 2018, and followed that up with a school-record 13 wins in 2019 alongside a second straight NCAA Quarterfinal appearance.


Mercer — the No. 20 team in the FCS last week — is off to a 1-0 start in 2023 after a Week 0 victory over North Alabama at the FCS Kickoff Classic in Montgomery, Alabama. The Bears won, 17-7, thanks in part to a stifling defense that shut down UNA to just 97 yards in the second half. Transfer running back Micah Bell paced the offense with 73 yards on the ground and one touchdown, a three-yard score in the fourth quarter that gave the Bears defense a 10-point cushion. Starting quarterback Carter Peevy threw for 115 yards and one score on a 12-of-17 line. Mercer returns 19 starters from its 7-4 squad in 2022, including 10 on the defensive side of the ball. Linebacker Isaac Dowling — a member of the Buck Buchanan Award preseason watch list — was named the MVP for the FCS Kickoff Classic last week after tallying 10 tackles, 1.5 TFL and a half sack. Mercer also features two superb wideouts in Devron Harper and Ty James, who were both named to the Senior Bowl Watch List and the Walter Payton Award Preseason Watch List — the FCS equivalent of the Heisman Trophy.


• Ole Miss leads the all-time series against Mercer, 1-0.
• The lone matchup came in Macon, Georgia 112 years ago on Nov. 4, 1911 … Ole Miss won, 34-0.


• Ole Miss is 161-92-7 (.633 winning pct.) all-time during the month of September after vacated wins.
• Ole Miss is 103-35-3 (.741 winning pct.) in September home games (including contests played in Memphis and Jackson).
• The Rebels are 78-22-2 (.775 winning percentage) in September games played in Oxford after vacated wins.
• Ole Miss is 114-41-6 (.727 winning pct.) all-time versus non-conference opponents during the month.


The Rebels are 94-29-5 (.754 winning percentage) in season openers and have taken 21 of the last 26 on the field. This game will be just the third home season opener for the Rebels in the last six years. The Rebels last played a current SoCon team in a season opener in 1953 (Chattanooga; W, 39-6), with the last home opener against a SoCon team coming in  2016 (Wofford; W, 38-13).


• Ole Miss ranks No. 22 in both the Coaches Poll and the Associated Press Poll.
• Dating back to 2021, Ole Miss has been ranked in the top-25 in 30 of the last 32 poll releases … That includes a streak of 29 across 2021 and 2022, the longest streak since being ranked for 41 straight weeks from 2014-16.
• The SEC boasts six teams in the top 25, including four teams ranked inside the top 10.


The Ole Miss roster features 20 players who hail from Georgia: CB AJ Brown (Cordele), S Nick Cull (Donalsonville), LB Jack Damron (Buford), CB Nyseer Fullwood-Theodore (Atlanta), RB Jam Griffin (Rome), DE Jared Ivey (Suwanee), OL Jeremy James (Cumming), S Zach Johansen (Suwanee), WR Cayden Lee (Kennesaw), LB Skielar Mann (Fort Valley), OL Reece McIntyre (Buford), LB Monty Montgomery (Norcross), OL Cedrick Nicely (Gainesville), P Charlie Pollock (Marietta), RB Ali Scott (Powder Springs), TE Wyatt Smalley (Milton), DT Akelo Stone (Savannah), LB Mark Trigg Jr. (Roswell), WR Dayton Wade (Atlanta) and S Demarko Williams (Atlanta).


Ole Miss heads into the fourth year of the Lane Kiffin era in 2023, and in three short years Kiffin has made his mark on the Rebel record book and put Ole Miss into the upper echelon of college football in numerous categories. The Kiffin-led Rebels have earned three consecutive bowl bids for the first time since 2012-14, going to the 2021 Outback Bowl, the 2022 Sugar Bowl and the 2022 Texas Bowl.

Kiffin has already mentored 12 NFL Draft picks, while also turning Ole Miss into a powerhouse both on the recruiting trail and in the transfer portal, notching three straight top-25 recruiting classes (per On3) and two consecutive top-6 transfer classes (per 247Sports).

Ole Miss has also been a force in the classroom, finishing within the top-three among FBS schools in multi-year APR in each of the last two releases from the NCAA. At 23-13, Kiffin stands as the second-fastest in Ole Miss history to break the 20-win plateau behind Harry Mehre, who went 20-4 in 24 games to Kiffin’s 20-8 in 28 games.


On the field, the Rebel offense ranks among the most prolific in the nation, ranking second in yards per game since 2020 (511.3 ypg/36 games) and third in total yards since 2020 (18,408 yards). The Rebels have done it with a balanced attack over the last three years as well, as Ole Miss ranks alongside only Ohio State as the only two Power-5 teams with both a top-10 passing season (2020; No. 7) and a top-10 rushing season (2022; No. 3) since 2020.


Kiffin’s dynamic Ole Miss offenses have single-handedly dismantled the Rebel record books, recording three of the top-five offensive seasons in school history since 2020. Leading the way is the 2020 squad that ended the season ranked No. 3 in total offense nationally at an Ole Miss record 555.5 yards per game (5,555 yards).

His 2021 team ranks fifth at 492.5 yards per game (6,402 yards), and last year the Rebels broke into the top-five again, this time notching the fourth-best season ever at 496.4 yards per game (6,453 yards).

Impressively, Kiffin’s Ole Miss teams have done so with a balanced offensive attack, ranking seventh in the FBS in passing in 2020 (344.9 ypg) before shifting toward the running game in 2021 with the No. 12 ground game (217.6 ypg) before 2022’s single-season school record rushing attack of 3,336 yards (256.6) led the SEC and ranked No. 3 in the FBS behind only the service academies.

With those big single-season numbers come monster single-game numbers as well. Kiffin owns 20 games during his Ole Miss tenure with at least 600 yards of total offense, as opposed to just 16 times total from the beginning of the Ole Miss football program in 1893 until Kiffin’s arrival in 2020. At the 700-yard plateau, Kiffin’s Rebels own three of the five total 700-yard games in Ole Miss history.


The 2022 Ole Miss rushing attack stands as one of the best in program history, as evidenced by nine total rushing school records tied or broken last season — including two records set more than 60 years ago in Kayo Dottley’s 1949 single-season rushing yards record (1,312) and the 1957 squads total team rushing yards (3,063).

• Team 1st Downs Rushing (176)
• Team Rushing Attempts (614)
• Team Rushing Yards (3,336)
• Team Rushing Touchdowns (33)
• Individual Rushing Attempts (Quinshon Judkins, 274)
• Individual Rushing Yards (Quinshon Judkins, 1,567)
• Individual Rushing Touchdowns (Quinshon Judkins, 16)
• Individual 100-Yard Rushing Games (Quinshon Judkins, 8)
• Individual Multi-Rushing TD Games (Quinshon Judkins, 6)


Vaught-Hemingway Stadium has been a safe haven for the Rebels historically, owning a 292-115-8 (.713) record all-time in Oxford, and that’s been no different in the Kiffin era. Since 2020, Ole Miss has gone 14-5 at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, which included in there a 14-game home winning streak that spanned Nov. 14, 2020 to Oct. 15, 2022.

That streak was among the longest home winning streaks nationally when it was snapped by No. 9 Alabama last November. It was also the longest winning streak in Oxford since winning 21 straight games from Nov. 1, 1952 to Nov. 7, 1959. Including a tie to LSU in 1960, the Rebels went unbeaten for 34 games over the course of 12 years (1952-64).

Ole Miss finished the 2021 campaign with a perfect 7-0 home record, its first undefeated season at home (on the field) since 1992 when the Rebels finished 6-0 at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. The 2021 season was also the first time that Ole Miss won seven on-campus games within the same season.


Ole Miss DE Cedric Johnson was recently named the winner of the 2023 Chucky Mullins Courage Award. The award, sponsored by Phi Beta Sigma fraternity, honors the late Chucky Mullins, who had his Ole Miss career come to an end during the 1989 Homecoming game against Vanderbilt when he was paralyzed after making a tackle. After returning to his studies at Ole Miss, Mullins passed away May 6, 1991.

A native of Mobile, Alabama, Johnson is the 33rd recipient in the 34-year history of the award. He will wear a No. 38 patch throughout the 2023 season. Johnson – a Bednarik Award and Senior Bowl watch list member who has also been named to preseason All-SEC teams by Phil Steele (first team), Athlon (third team) and Lindy’s (third team) – enters 2023 as Ole Miss’ active career leader in sacks with 13.5.

Last season, Johnson played in 11 games for the Rebels, starting in eight at defensive end. He finished the season with 32 total tackles, 4.0 sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss. He also blocked a punt against Georgia Tech, becoming the first Rebel since 2012 to block a punt and record a sack in the same game.


Sophomore running back Quinshon Judkins, who entered his freshman year third on the depth chart at Ole Miss, put together not only the best rushing season ever by a Rebel in 2022, but one of the most sensational years by a freshman running back in recent memory. Judkins captivated the Oxford community and the college football world en route to his record-breaking 2022 campaign that saw him shatter the Ole Miss single-season rushing record and put together the best freshman rushing season in the SEC since Herschel Walker at Georgia in 1980.

Superlatives • Judkins in 2022

• Set Ole Miss single-season records in rushing yards (1,567), rushing touchdowns (16), most rushing attempts (274), 100-yard rushing games (8), multi-rushing touchdown games (6).
• Tied Ole Miss single-season record in total touchdowns with 17 alongside Brandon Bolden (2010) and Deuce McAllister (2000).
• Second-best rushing season by a freshman in SEC history, trailing only Herschel Walker’s 1,616 yards at Georgia in 1980.
• At nine games, became fastest true freshman in the SEC to rush for 1,000 yards since Emmit Smith in 1987 (seven games).
• Ranked as the 11th-best rushing season by a Power-5 freshman all-time, the best since 2017.
• Second Rebel to ever win SEC Freshman of the Year (Laquon Treadwell, 2013).
• One of nine Rebels to ever rush for 1,000 yards, tied for the fastest to 1,000 with Kayo Dottley.
• Eight games with 100 rushing yards, four with 130 or more and two with 200 or more.
• Helped lead Ole Miss to new school records in rushing yards (3,336) and total rushing attempts (614).
• Second Rebel to ever record multiple 200-yard games in a career alongside Kayo Dottley (3).
• Part of only single-game duo in SEC history to both rush for 200 yards (Zach Evans, at Arkansas).
• His 1,699 all-purpose yards the best-ever by an Ole Miss freshman.
• His 102 points scored are the third-best ever at Ole Miss by a non-kicker, best ever by a freshman.
• 5x SEC Freshman of the Week.


Sophomore running back Quinshon Judkins has been a popular guy this preseason, appearing on every major All-America team and on the watch lists for some of the top awards in college football. Judkins was a hot commodity as a freshman in 2022 as well, earning several national, conference and statewide accolades.

Judkins’ 2023 Preseason Honors
• 2023 Maxwell Award Preseason Watch List
• 2023 Walter Camp Player of the Year Award Preseason Watch List
• 2023 Doak Walker Award Preseason Watch List
• 2023 Preseason All-America First Team (AP, TSN, CBS Sports/247Sports, Walter Camp, Athlon, Lindy’s, Phil Steele)
• 2023 ESPN Preseason All-America
• 2023 Preseason ESPN Top-100 College Football Players (No. 22)
• 2023 Preseason All-SEC First Team (Athlon, Lindy’s, Phil Steele, SEC Coaches, SEC Media)


Ole Miss made waves this offseason when it became arguably the deepest quarterback room in the nation with the additions of senior Oklahoma State transfer Spencer Sanders and freshman LSU transfer Walker Howard to compete alongside the Rebels’ 2022 starter Jaxson Dart. Kiffin and the Rebels went even deeper this summer, adding consensus four-star signee Austin Simmons, who reclassified to 2023 and has enrolled at Ole Miss as a freshman this fall.

Dart ended last year with 2,974 yards (No. 10 Ole Miss history) and 20 touchdowns passing (No. 9 Ole Miss history) for the Rebels, while adding 614 yards and a score on the ground. Dart’s 3,588 yards of total offense ranked as the sixth-best season in program history. Sanders was rated a four-star transfer and the nation’s No. 19 overall transfer according to On3. Sanders appeared in 43 career games for the Cowboys, earning 2019 Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year and 2021 first team All-Big 12 accolades. He threw for 9,553 yards, ran for 1,956 yards and posted 85 total touchdowns during his four-year career in Stillwater.

Sanders went 30-11 as a starter, which included an 11-2 mark in 2021. He enters 2023 fourth among active FBS quarterbacks in career total offense (11,509) and seventh in passing yards (9,553).

Howard was Ole Miss’ highest rated transfer according to 247Sports, coming in at No. 42. Howard appeared in two contests for the Tigers as a true freshman in 2022, and was one of the nation’s top quarterback prospects in the 2022 class. Howard was rated as the nation’s No. 1 dual-threat QB by ESPN and listed No. 5 by 247Sports.

Simmons was originally ranked No. 77 nationally by ESPN for the 2025 class before reclassifying to 2023 and coming to Oxford. At Moore Haven High School, he passed for 3,253 yards and 27 touchdowns as a senior and was a two-time all-state selection.


Roster turnover is the name of the game in modern college athletics, which means Ole Miss is no stranger to new faces. This season, out of 128 total student-athletes on the roster, 59 (46.1%) are brand-new to the Rebel squad. Of those, 31 (24.2%) are new transfers this past spring and summer, and 28 (21.9%) are freshmen signees. Combined with transfers from previous seasons, a total of 52 Rebels (40.6%) have transferred to Ole Miss on the current 2023 roster.


For the second straight year, Ole Miss ended up within the top-six of the 247Sports transfer rankings, sitting at No. 3 in the 2023 cycle. A total of 14 Rebel transfers helped contribute to the ranking, including four within 247’s top-100 transfers: QB Walker Howard (No. 42), TE Caden Prieskorn (No. 47), CB John Saunders Jr. (No. 86) and LB Monty Montgomery (No. 94). Other notable Rebel transfers contributing to the No. 3 ranking are: OL Victor Curne, WR Zakhari Franklin, CB DeShawn Gaddie Jr., DT Joshua Harris, WR Tre Harris, LB Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste, QB Spencer Sanders, DE Isaac Ukwu, CB Zamari Walton and S Teja Young.


However, Ole Miss does have a strong supply of returning talent foe 2023. On the offensive side of the ball, the Rebels return 66.1 percent of all their total snaps from 2022, in addition to 70.3 percent of their rushing attack and 95.8 percent of their passing game. On the offensive line, Ole Miss returns a formidable veteran group that was on the field of 77.8 percent of all offensive line snaps last season. Where the percentages dip below 60 percent are where Ole Miss has gone out and found reinforcements. Ole Miss returns only 35.9 percent of its receiving output from last year following the departure of key receivers Jonathan Mingo and Malik Heath to the NFL, who combined for 111 catches for 1,832 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. But Ole Miss brought in five new receivers, highlighted by Biletnikoff Award watch list members Zakhari Franklin and Tre Harris, as well as freshmen Ayden Williams and Cayden Lee. Ole Miss returns some solid production in the pass rush game on the defensive side of the ball, but went looking hard for replacements across the board. Of the 59 total newcomers on Ole Miss’ roster this fall, 33 are on the defensive side of the ball — including 15 new defensive backs. Ole Miss came away with five veteran senior DBs with previous FBS experience in cornerbacks DeShawn Gaddie Jr. (North Texas) and Zamari Walton (Georgia Tech), and safeties Daijahn Anthony (Liberty), John Saunders Jr. (Miami [OH]) and Teja Young (FAU). Combined among the five of them, they own an impressive total career line at the FBS level of 192 games played, 133 games started, 541 total tackles, 17 interceptions, 82 passes defended and eight forced fumbles.

Evelyn Van Pelt

Evelyn Van Pelt

Evelyn has covered sports for over two decades, beginning her journalism career as a sports writer for a newspaper in Austin, Texas. She attended Texas A&M and majored in English. Evelyn’s love for Ole Miss began when her daughter Katie attended the university on a volleyball scholarship. Evelyn created the Rebel Walk in 2013 and has served as publisher and managing editor since its inception.

About The Author

Evelyn Van Pelt

Evelyn has covered sports for over two decades, beginning her journalism career as a sports writer for a newspaper in Austin, Texas. She attended Texas A&M and majored in English. Evelyn's love for Ole Miss began when her daughter Katie attended the university on a volleyball scholarship. Evelyn created the Rebel Walk in 2013 and has served as publisher and managing editor since its inception.

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