Tennessee's fate vs. Rebels could be decided by fourth-down success

Ole Miss photo by Jared Redding / Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin and Rebels quarterback Matt Corral are no strangers to fourth-down gambles entering Saturday night's game at Tennessee. No. 13 Ole Miss (4-1, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) and the Vols (4-2, 2-1) are set for a 7:30 kickoff on the SEC Network.

A primary goal of every college football defensive coordinator is to get the opposing offense off the field on third down.

Unless Ole Miss is the foe.

Third down is simply the snap before fourth down for Lane Kiffin's 13th-ranked Rebels, who have eschewed punting the ball away a staggering 24 times through their first five games. That trend isn't expected to go away Saturday night at Tennessee, as Ole Miss has converted 18 of those 24 fourth-down attempts for a 75% success rate.

"We're first in the country in times going for it, and it's not even close in percentage with everyone but Air Force," Kiffin said. "When you're an option team, you do it a lot more than normal because you have so many fourth-and-ones. It's not a, 'Hey, we're going to go for it to go for it.' It's all studied. It's all thought out before the way the game goes.

"When you have a really good quarterback, that helps you do what you're supposed to do and makes it a little easier."

Tennessee, by comparison, is 7-of-13 on fourth-down tries (53.8%) through six games, including a 4-for-5 showing in the 56-0 rout of Tennessee Tech on Sept. 18.

The Rebels went 4-for-5 on fourth down last week and needed those conversions to survive Arkansas 52-51 at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Ole Miss faced fourth-and-3 at its 46-yard line late in the first quarter and converted with an 8-yard pass from Matt Corral to Jahcour Pearson to the Razorbacks' 46.

"I don't know what the analytics tell him, but it doesn't seem to matter a lot what the down and distance is," Arkansas coach Sam Pittman said. "I know he went for it one time on his side of the 50, and they made it. You've got to turn Ole Miss over on fourth down, but Corral is doing such a nice job with the ball and playing at such an elite level that it's hard to do."

Kiffin this season has essentially matched the fourth-down gambles he took as Tennessee's coach in 2009, when the Volunteers were 13-of-25 in the category for a 52% clip. Alabama wasn't known for taking extravagant risks during his three seasons as Nick Saban's offensive coordinator from 2014-16, with the Crimson Tide going for it on fourth down just 17 times in 15 games during the 2016 season.

In his debut season in Oxford a year ago, Ole Miss converted 22 of 33 fourth-down opportunities, with even those 3.3 fourth-down tries per game paling to this season's pace of 4.8.

"We have started to see these analytics and the details of them," Kiffin said. "In the time at Alabama, as you can imagine, they were not really used there, which doesn't really matter, because some people like them and some people don't. If you had studied them in the Alabama game and their field-goal attempts the other night against (Texas) A&M, the analytics would tell you 100% to go the other way, but everybody is different.

"We're way over on the other end of it, which I kind of say is new school versus old school of really believing in them, because they are factual. If you do, that leads you to going for it on fourth down a lot more than the common coach does."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.