Chad Kelly threw for 341 yards and three touchdowns and ran for another score last Saturday to help Mississippi knock off Alabama for the second straight year but, in an age where word travels fast, that’s ancient news. The big splash Thursday was Ole Miss gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Kelly was the best story to emerge from the 43-37 victory over second-ranked Alabama, but he didn’t make the cover. The magazine instead used a photo of safety Trae Elston, whose ecstatic roar after a second-quarter interception was a portrait of emotions that would sweep across Mississippi and beyond.
It marked the first time Ole Miss knocked off Alabama in consecutive years and the first time since 1988 that the Rebels won in Tuscaloosa. Ole Miss has scored 43 points or more in each of its first three straight games, another first. It handed Alabama its first home loss since 2012, when Johnny Football led Texas A&M to victory and introduced himself to the nation.
“It feels great,” Kelly said. “I give all glory to God. Grandma is looking over me today. This one is for her. I’m so thankful to play for a great team, great players, great coaches and great fans. This is awesome. This is what you dream about.”
Kelly has been the centerpiece in Mississippi’s meteoric rise from No. 17 in national preseason polls to No. 3 this week. He has passed for 898 yards and nine touchdowns, running for another three and throwing just one interception. Through three games, he’s second in the country in quarterback efficiency.
Against the Tide, he completed 18 of 33 passes with no interceptions. He scored on a 4-yard run in the first half to give the Rebels a 17-3 lead, a sign an upset was brewing. He threw for 305 yards and all three touchdowns in the second half, standing up to Alabama before a national television audience.
Roll the highlight reel.
Kelly, whose bluster earned him the nickname “Swag,” backed up his “Fear Nobody” tattoo under his right biceps with his performance against the Crimson Tide. But when asked about Kelly earlier this week, Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze was slow to praise the junior quarterback.
“He played average. I think he would tell you that,” Freeze told the media while preparing for Vanderbilt. “He made some big plays. He’s a competitive dude. He’s a winner. He has an ‘it’ factor to him. It was his first real test in a difficult place to play.”
Granted, Kelly caught a few breaks that should not be ignored. He threw a fluke 66-yard touchdown to Quincy Adeboyejo after he bobbled a high snap, threw off his back foot and bounced a pass off the helmet of an Alabama defender. He threw a 73-yard TD pass after officials missed an ineligible receiver downfield.
In all, Kelly kept his composure, gained confidence and played better than expected against a national powerhouse. He reaffirmed why he was a four-star recruit at St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute, why SEC teams showed interest after he was booted from Clemson, why Ole Miss gave him a scholarship despite a confrontation with Buffalo cops and questions about his maturity.
Kelly was unavailable for comment Thursday after getting bombarded with media requests all week, as you can imagine. Maybe it’s better that way. He has been tougher to read than “War and Peace,” which is to say final conclusions should not be drawn from first impressions. You muddle through the confusion chapter by chapter and pray for a happy ending.
He’s 21 years old and still finding his way. Right when you think he’s turning the corner, he seems to swerve into oncoming traffic. He’s learning how to control his emotions and resist impulses that led him astray. Here’s hoping he has steered clear of trouble, that someday his character will match his ability.
Kelly’s talent has never been in question. He’s blessed with a quick release, cannon arm and great instincts, a package that justifies comparisons to his uncle Jim. He’s the best quarterback to wear No. 10 for Ole Miss since Eli Manning. A writer for NCAA.com suggested he has entered early discussions for the Heisman. He should only get better.
“There were about three of four times that we missed on explosive plays because he’s glued in and not going through the progression he needs to go through,” Freeze said. “We need to coach him better and get him more prepared.”
Freeze’s faint praise may have been an effort to humble Kelly and keep his head on straight. Or maybe the coach sees untapped potential in his first-year quarterback. Kelly was given an opportunity to make history and distance himself from his own. Time will take its course either way. He will make a name for himself under Freeze or run out of chances.
The scrutiny, endless on social media, will continue as his career evolves. That much is guaranteed, but his missteps eventually will be forgotten if he carries himself the way he did Saturday. It wasn’t how he played against Alabama, but how he conducted himself afterward, that suggested he’s making progress.
Kelly won the biggest game of his career and made headlines for the right reasons. He helped push his team up the national rankings. He played himself into conversations about the Heisman. But when he took center stage, he sounded like a new-and-improved Chad Kelly who wasn’t interested in yesterday’s news.
To me, that’s the story.