Saturday, May 25, 2024

Future of college football spring games? Ole Miss’ blueprint is fun and mostly football-free

OXFORD, Miss. — Joey Chestnut scarfed down hot dogs. Monte Kiffin got pushed in a golf cart race. Sororities competed in a tug-of-war championship.

On a beautiful, 80-degree day inside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, this looked like the future of spring games: Show very little actual football, focus on the fun and try to escape without any injuries. There would be no opportunity to over-analyze how well the Ole Miss backup quarterback looked, as many fanbases will surely do following other spring games.

Instead, fans saw a slam dunk contest featuring football players, a disgusting amount of hot dogs consumed in six minutes, and a little seven-on-seven flag football. Chestnut, who showed up after Rebels coach Lane Kiffin slid in his direct messages with an invite, ate 20 hot dogs in 90 seconds and then broke down his performance in easily the most memorable of any post-spring game press conference in the country. Evidently, a bun got stuck in his throat, which momentarily slowed him down.

“There’s a lot of technique to hot dog eating,” Kiffin explained.

It had the look and feel of a circus, perfectly fitting with Kiffin, college football‘s greatest showman, at the helm. Long an offensive X’s and O’s innovator and now the sport’s Portal King, Kiffin was using his unique brain to twist a long-staid format desperately needing an update.

“Really, the value of spring games, in my opinion, is overrated because you don’t show many plays on offense or defense,” Kiffin said. “Most people don’t unless they are trying to win the fans over or TV over with the game. You really don’t get a whole lot out of it.”

Ole Miss didn’t release an official attendance, but the feeling was that it easily exceeded anything experienced during recent spring games. No, it wasn’t close to Ohio State‘s 80,012 or Alabama‘s 72,358, but it was a lively crowd that embraced the absurdity of it all. It didn’t hurt that Ole Miss allowed students 21-years-and-older to bring in alcohol and sit behind one of the end zones to try to recreate the environment of right field at a baseball game in Swayze Field.

It was nearly impossible to have any tangible takeaways from the Grove Bowl about an Ole Miss team coming off an 11-2 season, which seemed precisely the intent. More Taylor Swift music played than notable football plays occurred.

The first look at behemoth 6-foot-4, 290-pound defensive tackle Walter Nolen, the nation’s No. 3 transfer according to 247Sports rankings, came in a tug-of-war competition. (His team lost.). Former New York Giants head coach Joe Judge, who recently joined the staff, also got roped into a tug-of-war contest. Quarterback Jaxson Dart, an early preseason Heisman Trophy contender, threw passes while wearing a backward hat during 7-on-7 play.

“I thought it was really fun,” Dart said. “You got a lot of guys involved with many different things. Throughout the whole day, the whole team was involved in every activity, which made it super fun and guys just competed. I’m pretty positive you’ll see more of that from other teams.”

The undercurrent beneath Kiffin’s goofy and chaotic spring game format is a smart and intentional strategy to minimize the impact of the transfer portal window opening on Tuesday. College football coaches have long been paranoid about showing too much during spring games, but those fears have spiked in the current name, image and likeness and transfer portal era. Kiffin had zero interest in doing anything that could encourage his players to hit the transfer portal, which runs from April 16-30. That meant no depth chart, no real football action where players — or the people around them — could count repetitions to determine where they stood in the pecking order. It’s not a guarantee to stop guys from leaving, but it at least makes it harder for them to justify leaving or for competing programs to poach players off the Rebels’ roster.

Just last year, Kiffin’s long-time friend, Texas coach Steve Sarkisian, had to deal with the downsides of a spring game. Texas backup quarterback Malik Murphy looked like a star in the Longhorns’ spring game with his performance including a beautiful, 79-yard touchdown pass. What happened afterward was predictable: Multiple SEC schools inquired with people around Murphy about getting him to jump in the transfer portal. Texas was ultimately able to fend off the pursuits with a healthy NIL package, according to 247Sports’ Chris Hummer. Murphy transferred to Duke after the 2023 season.

Kiffin claims he’s not trying to start a trend, but in a copycat business, there’s a good chance he might have. Other coaches might not be as avante-garde as Kiffin in embracing the silliness of a spring game to the extreme seen Saturday in Oxford. More and more coaches will be looking for ways to mitigate transfer risks, however, and moving away from the traditional spring game format feels like a straightforward tweak. For the majority of coaches, the traditional spring game’s risks far outweigh its benefits, even if some old-school fans might be miffed about the changes. Kiffin came up with a smart, alternative blueprint that others would be wise to follow. 

For his part, Kiffin hopes his peers don’t follow him down his hot dog contest and flag football spring game path. 

“I would like people to keep playing the spring game so we can watch all their players play in spring,” Kiffin said. 

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