But he had an idea.
Ole Miss was his favorite, so he tuned into a mid-November game between SEC West foes Ole Miss and Arkansas, his eyes on the Rebels, who he would ultimately sign with and become the starting quarterback for. He was considering additional visits to other schools, but Ole Miss always stood out as the perfect opportunity.
Bo Wallace was in his final year, and the Rebels featured an array of offensive talent led by star wide receiver Laquon Treadwell. Really, his mind was all but made up. He wasn’t swayed by a 30-0 thrashing at the hands of the Razorbacks in Fayetteville. If anything, he felt the pain of his future teammates.
And now Kelly and the 7-2 (4-1 SEC) Rebels get a shot at revenge.
“That was the old team, this is the new, but you've got to have a chip on your shoulder going into this game for sure,” said Kelly, the SEC leader in passing yards (2,856), points responsible for (144, total offense (335.3 per game and touchdown passes (20).
“It's kind of a revenge game for me. I was watching it personally. I felt the pain they were all going through during that game. I'm excited for this opportunity.”
Senior defensive back Mike Hilton, a starting cornerback in the game, experienced the misery first hand. Arkansas jumped on Ole Miss quickly, 17-0, and forced six Rebel turnovers (four interceptions, two fumbles), and the then-No. 8 Rebels were run out of the stadium in what was one of the worst losses in four years under head coach Hugh Freeze.
“Everybody knows what happened down there,” Hilton said. “We’re going to use it as motivation this week. We know they’re going to come in ready to play, and we’ve got to match their intensity and enthusiasm. We’re going to make sure we handle our business and focus on what we can do and see how it turns out on Saturday.”
“I’m a competitor and an offensive coach,” Freeze said. “As soon as we were able to turn our attention from Auburn, that was on my mind. I like getting another shot at that. It motivates me.”
Ole Miss is riding a two-game winning streak, including a 27-19 road win at Auburn last week. Arkansas, meanwhile, will arrive in Oxford with a 4-4 overall record and 2-2 mark in the SEC. The Razorbacks own SEC wins against Tennessee and Auburn, while dropping contests to Texas A&M and Alabama.
“A lot of things went wrong that game for us,” Hilton said. “But we don’t look at it like everything went wrong, we’ve just got to play to the best of our ability. They just came in fired up, got on us quick and took over. We’ve got to match that type of intensity, and go out there and do what we have to do. Hopefully it can come out well Saturday.”
The Rebels - ranked No. 18 in the first College Football Playoff poll of the season - have everything to play for Saturday, a 2:30 p.m. kickoff on CBS. They control their own destiny, meaning if they win all of their remaining games (Arkansas, LSU and at Mississippi State), they’ll be in Atlanta, Ga., for their first-ever SEC championship game appearance.
But postseason talk can wait for another day. Ole Miss has waited a calendar year for another opportunity at Arkansas, and junior tight end Evan Engram said the team will be ready.
“We threw it in the trash that Sunday. But this week knowing that we’ve got them coming to our house is definitely in the back of our minds. It’s going to be in the motivation tank this week.”