The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

Behind Enemy Bylines: Ole Miss Rebels

The Hustler went Behind Enemy Byline to interview Aidan Gallardo, the sports editor of the Ole Miss student newspaper The Daily Mississippian, to preview Vanderbilt’s upcoming matchup with the Landsharks.
Mike+Wright+rolls+out+against+Ole+Miss
Vanderbilt Athletics
Mike Wright rolls out against Ole Miss in Vanderbilt’s loss on Nov. 20, 2021. (Vanderbilt Athletics)

When the Commodores kick off against Ole Miss on Oct. 8, they’ll be playing in Nashville for the first time in almost a month. A lot has changed since then: AJ Swann went from an exciting second-string QB to the starter under center, the program notched a third non-conference win for the first time since 2018 and what began as the SEC’s preseason pariah now is in legitimate contention for one or two conference victories. 

All that said, this week’s bout with No. 9 Ole Miss is not the most favorable matchup on Vanderbilt’s schedule. The Rebels (otherwise known as the Landsharks in these parts) are 5-0 and fresh off a win against previous No. 7 Kentucky. Lane Kiffin’s defense looks the best it has in his three-year tenure. ESPN’s Football Power Index gives Ole Miss around a 90% chance to defeat Vanderbilt. 

However, the team from Oxford, Mississippi, certainly doesn’t look unbeatable. Transfer quarterback Jaxson Dart has failed to live up to the potential he showcased at USC by tallying a mere five touchdowns and three interceptions on the season. Kiffin’s squad played around in the non-conference slate against Troy—who outgained them 286-167 yards through the air—and Tulsa—who they only beat by a touchdown. They also nearly lost last weekend’s game against Kentucky but were saved by consecutive red zone fumbles from opposing quarterback Will Levis.

It’s certainly possible that this weekend’s game is closer than its current -18.5 line at Caesar’s Sportsbook suggests. To dive deeper into the matchup, The Hustler went Behind Enemy Bylines to interview Aidan Gallardo, sports editor of The Daily Mississippian.

Vanderbilt Hustler: Ole Miss went 10-2 in the regular season last year with losses to only Alabama and Auburn. What are the odds they’re able to finish out this season with that kind of success?

Aidan Gallardo: As much as I’d love to see them have the same amount of success they had last season, it’s just too hard to say that’s possible when you take into account that they lost so many guys during the offseason. On the other hand, this new-look Rebel team looks very solid. You don’t typically see the majority of a team’s starters, especially on the offensive side of the ball, come in through the transfer portal. Guys like Jaxson Dart, Zach Evans, Michael Trigg and Malik Heath are all new faces on the team. But to get back to your question, I don’t think they can have the same amount of success as last season because, when you look at their schedule, it truly is a gauntlet during the final third of the season. They go on the road to Texas A&M (even though the Aggies haven’t looked great this season, it’s always tough to play at Kyle Field), play Alabama at home, go back on the road to Arkansas and finish off their regular season at home against Mississippi State for the Egg Bowl. When you take into consideration that all of these games are played consecutively after each other, it’s just hard to see how this team can win out. My preseason prediction was that Ole Miss was going to 9-3 at best, and I still stand by that record.

VH: How concerned are you by the slow start from Dart? Could it even be time to give Luke Altmyer some more action? 

AG:  I am not concerned by Dart’s slow start. Yes, he’s looked inconsistent at times, but he’s also doing his job. We don’t need him to be another Matt Corral or Eli Manning. Ole Miss’s offense revolves around the ground game. We’ve seen running plays called on third and long multiple times already this year that have been converted. The Rebels average 261.8 rushing yards per game which is first in the SEC and fifth among all FBS teams. That shows how talented the running back room is. I think that Ole Miss just needs Dart to be a good game manager. Keep the turnovers down and hit the open receiver. If the opposing defense shuts down the run game, then Dart will have to step up and make some big throws. Thankfully, that hasn’t happened yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it did. I will say, he hasn’t looked accurate at all with his deep ball, but he will get better with that over time. As much as I love Luke Altmyer, I think that Lane Kiffin chose the right guy to be under center. Dart seems to handle pressure better and he certainly utilizes his legs to scramble out of the pocket when a play collapses, something that Altmyer isn’t as skilled at. 

VH: The defense seems to have shown a lot of improvement since Kiffin’s arrival in Oxford. What do you think is their upside relative to the rest of the SEC?

AG: I think that Ole Miss’s defense is severely undervalued in the college football world. It was an incredible turnaround from Kiffin’s first season at Ole Miss, where the defense was around the bottom of the list for every statistical category. Now, the Ole Miss defense ranks among one of the best not only in the SEC but also in the country. The Ole Miss defense allows just 315.6 yards per game, good for fourth in the SEC. They allow just 11.8 points per game which is third in the SEC and seventh among all FBS teams. Last week, they held a Kentucky offense to just 19 points. The Wildcats have been consistently putting up 30 points per game, so holding that team to under 20 points is a big win for the Ole Miss defense. Co-defensive coordinators Maurice Crum and Chris Partridge have done a fantastic job with the defense thus far in the season, and it’ll be interesting to see how they can hold up against opposing offenses as the season progresses. 

VH: Have you gotten the chance to watch any Vanderbilt football this season? AJ Swann seems like the kind of guy that could give the Ole Miss secondary some problems where Will Levis couldn’t.

AG: I did watch the Week 0 game against Hawaii and Vanderbilt looked great in that game. Their offense produced 63 points and their ground game absolutely took over. Even though AJ Swann has looked terrific this season, I don’t think that Ole Miss’s defense will struggle against him. The thing I really like about Swann is that it feels like his football IQ is through the roof. His decision-making is top notch and the fact that he has yet to throw an interception after facing defenses like Wake Forest and Alabama is huge. Because his yards per game isn’t all that high, it’s hard to see him slash his way through the Ole Miss defense. But, I do believe that Swann has a very bright future and Vanderbilt fans should be thrilled to have a guy like him. 

VH: Ole Miss won this game last year by two touchdowns, and Vegas is feeling something similar this weekend. What’s your expectation?

AG:  I’m sorry Vanderbilt fans. I just don’t see how this game doesn’t end in a blow out. I think that the Ole Miss offense is too much for Vanderbilt’s defense to handle. I expect Zach Evans and Quinshon Judkins to have a big game running the ball and when you combine that with a pesky Rebel defense, it is hard to see this game being close. My prediction for the game is an Ole Miss victory by the score of 49-10. Again, I apologize to the Vanderbilt fans reading this. It’s strictly business.

VH: This game is supposed to be a rivalry, but Vanderbilt has only won three of the last 10 matchups. Do you think Ole Miss students see it that way, and would you be sad to see it go once the SEC switches to pod scheduling in 2024?

AG: I personally don’t see it as a rivalry, and I’m sure Ole Miss students don’t see it as one either, sadly. I don’t think it’s a rivalry anymore because the games have been so lopsided in recent years. As much as I love rivalries in college football, it’s hard to see this as one, at least right now.

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About the Contributor
Jayce Pollard
Jayce Pollard, Non-revenue Sports Specialist
Jayce Pollard (‘25) is a student in the College of Arts and Science majoring in public policy and economics and minoring in data science and Spanish. Outside of writing for The Hustler, you can catch Jayce trying to learn the rules of soccer, hating on the Arkansas Razorbacks and being chronically on Twitter. He can be reached at [email protected]
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