Why this year is the biggest test of Lane Kiffin's head coaching career to date
Lane Kiffin never takes an “L” anymore.
This is the guy who famously delivered a “get your popcorn ready” walk-off line in a pregame interview … only to then get throttled by Alabama. So what did Kiffin do? He laughed at himself and Ole Miss gave out free popcorn to the first 5,000 fans in attendance for the next home game.
😏 FREE POPCORN!
The first 5,000 fans on Saturday will receive FREE 🍿. Visit the F.I.N.S. stands ⬇️
North Concourse Gate 6
South Concourse Gate 23
East Concourse Gate 13
West Concourse Gate 36
— Ole Miss Football (@OleMissFB) October 7, 2021
Kiffin is the same guy who literally picked up a golf ball thrown at him during his epically hostile Tennessee reunion and then turned it into a viral moment. He turned criticism about a lack of touches for John Rhys Plumlee into a fun, pregame tweet ritual wherein the 2 would pose together and Kiffin would tweet that offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby needed to get him the ball more.
When you’ve taken some of the “Ls” that Kiffin has, I suppose you learn how to turn anything around. How many people can poke fun at the fact that they were fired from their dream job and then left on an airport tarmac? Kiffin is like the person who has fallen to the ground so much that he’s now an expert at how to avoid serious injury when he takes a spill.
In 2022, that premise will be put to the test unlike any time in Kiffin’s ever-eventful, roller-coaster career.
Why? He’s dealing with unprecedented personnel turnover and doing so in the toughest, most unforgiving division in the sport. The aforementioned Lebby is gone, which is significant considering he (not Kiffin) was the primary play-caller. On top of that, Texas A&M poached defensive coordinator DJ Durkin. Kiffin also had to replace his historically dominant quarterback and team leader Matt Corral, his prolific tailback trio and his top 3 receivers.
No big deal. The great coaches deal with that type of stuff all the time.
That’s what Kiffin’s 2022 will tell us — is he good or is he becoming great?
Expectations are relatively conservative following the best regular season in program history. One listing has Ole Miss’ regular-season win/total projection at 8. That’s actually a testament to Kiffin considering Ole Miss ranks No. 98 in FBS in percentage of returning production. Besides 2014-15, which was later the subject of NCAA sanctions, you’d have to go all the way back to the John F. Kennedy administration to find another instance in which Ole Miss had 18 regular-season wins in a 2-year stretch.
Prior to coming to Ole Miss, you could argue that Kiffin has never had consecutive seasons as a head coach in which he lived up to expectations, much less exceeded them. At FAU, that 11-win season in Year 1 was followed by a 5-win dud in Year 2 (go figure that Kiffin’s OC was Charlie Weis Jr., who just took over as Ole Miss’ new OC to replace Lebby). At USC, that promising 10-win season in 2011 yielded a preseason No. 1 ranking in 2012 … which concluded with a massively disappointing 7-win season that set the stage for said tarmac firing.
The difference between now compared to any of those years is, of course, the transfer portal. Specifically, it’s the fact that undergraduate transfers now get a 1-time exemption to receive immediate eligibility. In other words, a program like Ole Miss that ranks No. 114 in FBS in percentage of returning offensive production can avoid that massive step back by adding plug-and-play guys all over the field.
It’s no secret that Kiffin has been extremely active in the transfer portal. He added 14 transfers (as of April 15), 11 of which were from the Power 5 level. Just at the offensive skill positions alone, Kiffin reloaded at quarterback (USC transfer Jaxson Dart), tailback (TCU transfer Zach Evans and SMU transfer Ulysses Bentley IV), receiver (MSU transfer Malik Heath and Louisville transfer Jordan Watkins) and tight end (USC transfer Michael Trigg).
He already has the “portal king” nickname:
— Lane Kiffin (@Lane_Kiffin) March 22, 2022
Kiffin earned his “W” on that. In the top 100 ranked transfers from 247sports, Kiffin added 9 players compared to 5 for Lincoln Riley at USC. Here’s that breakdown by SEC program:
- Ole Miss, 9
- LSU, 6
- Arkansas, 5
- Alabama, 4
- South Carolina, 4
- Florida, 3
- Auburn, 1
- Kentucky, 1
- Mizzou, 1
- MSU, 1
- Tennessee, 1
- Texas A&M, 1
- Georgia, 0
- Vandy, 0
Nobody in the country signed more transfers in the 247sports top 100 rankings than Ole Miss.
Does that guarantee that Kiffin will crank out another top-25 offense en route to 10 wins? Of course not. But it does certainly help him elevate the talent of his team, which ranked No. 12 in the SEC in the 247sports team talent index rankings in 2020 and No. 9 in the SEC in 2021.
Kiffin’s portal success should give his new coordinators a better chance to work with SEC-ready players instead of hoping that a handful of underclassmen pop. As he knows, the SEC West isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s no place for “rebuilding” years. Not if you want to change the belief that 2021 was a ceiling year for Ole Miss.
The goal this year is to prove that Ole Miss’ floor with Kiffin is higher than 6-7 wins. Those teams are out of the hunt for the division race by mid-October. They’re the ones playing weekday afternoon bowl games in Birmingham. That’s not the image that Kiffin wants of his program to close Year 3.
Kiffin wants the #PartyInTheSip vibes to be as prevalent as ever. Part of that could be rooted in his desire to land one of the most decorated legacy recruits ever in Arch Manning, but more important for Kiffin is showing that he’s not just the top-tier Twitter follow with the electric offense. If you’re truly going to build an elite program and establish yourself as a top-10 coach in the sport, this is exactly the type of season to show it.
Show that you made the right moves with your coordinator hires. Show that you hand-picked the right group of transfers who turn into immediate contributors. Above all else, show that you’re not going anywhere.
Now’s not the time to take an “L.”