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Dart or Sanders? No. 22 Ole Miss opens season against Mercer with a quarterback quandary

The big question surrounding Mississippi as the last regular season limped to a close was more about who would be the head coach in 2023 than who would be the starting quarterback.

Coach Lane Kiffin and quarterback Jaxson Dart are both back for a season that starts with Saturday’s opener against FCS school Mercer (1-0). It remains to be seen if Dart will remain the starter after an offseason challenge from Oklahoma State transfer Spencer Sanders, one of college football’s most experienced passers.

“It’s been very competitive and the future is bright,” said Kiffin, who flirted with the Auburn job before signing a new contract with Ole Miss. “We have two returning starters that have played in really big games and that’s a great situation to be in.”

The Rebels ended last season on a four-game skid amid all the Kiffin speculation. But they return with another big influx of transfers and preseason All-America tailback Quinshon Judkins.

While any game pitting an SEC team against one from the FCS figures to be a mismatch, Judkins said it hasn’t affected the Rebels’ preparation.

“I think that’s what separates our team,” he said. “Just going into any matchup, we do not consider someone just because of the logo on their chest or who they are or their record. Coach Kiffin prepares us the right way to go into any matchup.”

Mercer started off with a 17-7 win over North Alabama.

“We'll go over there and throw everything we've got at them,” Bears coach Drew Cronic said. “You never know what will happen. Good things happen when you're prepared and ready to go.”

QUARTERBACK QUANDARY

Dart had a solid debut season for the Rebels after transferring from USC. He completed 62% of his passes for 2,974 yards and also rushed for 614 yards. Sanders' resume includes 41 starts for Oklahoma State and 2021 first-team All-Big 12 Conference honors.

IMPROVED JUDKINS?

Judkins has focused on improving as a pass catcher and blocker. He offers words that could alarm opposing defenses if proven true: “I think I've just gotten tremendously better overall.” Judkins led the SEC with a school-record 1,567 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns as a freshman.

FITTING TOGETHER

Nearly 25% of Ole Miss’s 128-man roster (31) are transfers, leaving questions about team chemistry. It’s not as big a concern as last season for Kiffin.

“I’ve seen really good chemistry so far,” he said. “Obviously, you’re never going to hear a coach say ‘Man I feel really bad about it,’ but I didn’t feel this way a year ago and that ended up showing itself unfortunately. I feel much different about this.”

Besides Sanders, other key transfers include wide receivers Tre Harris and Zakhari Franklin, tight end Caden Prieskorn and linebacker Monty Montgomery. Franklin has been nursing a knee injury, leaving his status for the opener uncertain.

CHUCKY MULLINS AWARD

Defensive end Cedric Johnson will wear the No. 38 patch through the season after winning the Chucky Mullins Courage Award. The award honors the late Chucky Mullins, who was paralyzed after making a tackle in the 1989 game against Vanderbilt. Johnson is sticking with the No. 2 jersey he picked out in honor of his brother, Cephus.

WELCOME BACK

Mercer hasn't played a game in Mississippi since losing to Mississippi College in 1941. The Bears did host Ole Miss in 1911, losing 34-0 in Macon, Georgia. That was their only meeting. Mercer is 0-9-1 against teams from the Magnolia State.

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AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll