Kiffin's return to Knoxville figures to be anything but ordinary
If anyone can understand what it’ll be like for Lane Kiffin, it’s Nick Saban.
On October 25th, the University of Alabama football team will travel to Tennessee for the latest installment of the Third Saturday in October rivalry, and for once no one figures to be talking about how the Crimson Tide has won the last seven meetings.
Instead, the focus will be on the new Alabama offensive coordinator, who will be making his first trip back to Knoxville since bolting for Southern California at the end of the 2009 season.
While getting booed at Neyland Stadium is nothing new for the Crimson Tide, this will be a little different – like the Volunteers faithful could try to get Smokey, the mascot dog who bit Alabama wide receiver Mike McCoy a few year ago, to lift his leg on him.
“They don’t like me in Baton Rouge because I left, and they don’t like him in Tennessee,” Saban said. “I’ve had to go back there and I survived, and I think he’ll probably survive too, or I hope he does.”
Joking aside, the return will be a little odd until the game gets under way, just like seeing Kiffin in an Alabama shirt has taken some getting used to by fans. However, the adjustment that most people have almost completely overlooked is the one he’s making from head coach to offensive coordinator.
Although still just 39, the last season in which Kiffin wasn’t a head coach was 2006.
“It’s probably a big transition for him,” Saban said. “I was a head coach for one year at Toledo and then went to the Cleveland Browns as a defensive coordinator. As soon as you get used to being the boss, and then you’re not the boss any more, it’s a transition; I don’t care whom it’s for.
“All of a sudden you can’t say when everybody gets to go home. It’s just different. But he’s done a really good job for us, the players respond to him well. He’s a good teacher, he’s smart, he’s a good coach. So far, so good.”
In addition to getting acclimated to Tuscaloosa, Kiffin has spent the past few months recruiting, helping quarterbacks like Blake Sims and Cooper Bateman develop, and tweaking the Crimson Tide playbook.
While some have speculated that Alabama’s offense may go at a faster pace this season with more aggressive play-calling, all indications are that it won’t be too different from what everyone has seen from the Crimson Tide teams of late.
“It’s Saban, so it’s going to be the same offense,” senior tight end Brian Vogler explained during the spring. “Obviously there’s wrinkles. Every coach brings his own wrinkle to it but you’re going to see the same stuff.
“Just a little bit more dynamic, hard to explain.”
One thing Alabama hopes to be this season is more unpredictable, which when you consider the playmakers on the roster Kiffin may feel like a kid in a candy store. There’s both T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry in the backfield, tight end O.J. Howard could be poised for a monster sophomore season, and led by Amari Cooper the wide receiver corps might have the most depth of all the position groups.
Saban is on the record as saying that Cooper is so good that defenses almost have to double-team him, while Kiffin likes nothing better than to get his best players the ball. For example, in 2012 Trojans wide receiver Marquise Lee made 118 receptions for 1,721 yards (14.6 average) and 14 touchdowns in 13 starts en route to winning the Biletnikoff Award, Paul Warfield Award and Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year.
“Coach is a likable guy,” Cooper said. “He wants every player to execute their job. He also wants you to have fun playing football.”
The thing is, even if defenses do figure out a way to stop, or limit, Cooper, who is already on pace to set numerous Crimson Tide career receiving records, there’s also DeAndrew White, Christion Jones, and so on. You start moving them all around and it only creates more headaches for the opposition.
“Our tight ends will be wide, our wide receivers will be inside and in the backfield and the back side wide,” Jones said. “Coach Kiffin brings a lot to the table. No one is stationary, everyone is moving around. It’s going to be really exciting to get into the offense once the season comes around.
“I think the big thing he’s taught me is to pay attention to the small things on the defense which can get you open and find different ways to get open. He teaches us what the QB is looking at, what his reads are, which makes it better for you to get open and play fast.”
A lot will obviously also depend on who the quarterback is, with Florida State transfer Jacob Coker and Sims competing for the starting job during camp. While Coker is more of a pro-style thrower and Sims a dual-threat, both figure to get playing time even though Saban isn’t looking to have a two-quarterback offense.
“It’s not something I would hope would happen,” he said. “Is it something I can totally rule out? Not really.”
Who knows? Maybe that’ll be a key part of Alabama’s offense by the time it visits Tennessee, where Kiffin went 7-6 but his abrupt departure sparked a student riot and the setting of some small fires.
LSU fans burned an effigy of Saban when he first returned to Baton Rouge in 2008, but he got the last laugh with a 27-21 overtime victory. He also led Alabama to a 21-0 national championship victory over LSU in New Orleans at the end of the 2011 season, and a year later won another title at another former stomping ground, Miami (42-14 over Notre Dame).
“I think all the people in Tennessee really dislike Lane because they liked him before he left,” Saban said. “That’s what I liked. I liked what he did when he was there. I liked what he did when he was at Southern Cal.”