First and 10: Buckle up. The Lane Train is going to be a wild ride. Maybe wildly successful, too
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
I’m not sure what I love more about the last week at Ole Miss: the speed at which change evolves, or the I don’t give a damn what you think attitude at which the university goes about its business.
It’s truly ruthless.
Take a deep breath, everyone. And away we go!
In the span of a week, Ole Miss fired respected alum and former star player Matt Luke after all of 2 full seasons because he couldn’t pull a program from the depths of (in no specific order) NCAA probation, staff members paying players, rogue assistant coaches, and a head coach who blamed the previous staff for NCAA violations that were his and developed an elaborate plan to sell the lie to the media – the same head coach who wasn’t smart enough to use a burner phone when calling for massage “services” while recruiting on the university’s dime.
How can you possibly top that, you ask? Two words:
Look, I like Kiffin. He’s a fun guy, he speaks his mind and doesn’t hide behind boring, nonsensical verbiage. More important, he’s a brilliant football tactician.
He’s 1 of the 3 best play-callers in college football, and after 4 head coaching jobs (3 were utter disasters), there is hope that the successful 4th has set him on the straight and narrow.
The absolute only way Ole Miss could cap this bizarre coaching transition was hiring Kiffin – maybe the biggest, baddest lightning rod in all of college football.
The past 3 years in Oxford began with the firing mercurial coach Hugh Freeze (see: aforementioned “services”) before the start of the 2016 season, after the university president and athletic director public stood with him despite NCAA sanctions tied to his tenure – and then jumped shipped once word leaked of the massages.
Ole Miss then hired good guy Luke as an interim placeholder, before making him permanent because someone had to hold the bag for the mess Freeze and his merry men left in Oxford. Two years later, Luke was gone because, like all fired coaches, he couldn’t win enough games (and because one of his players acted like he was peeing in the end zone and cost the Rebels the Egg Bowl, but that’s another story for another time).
And now a wild acid trip down the rabbit hole has come to this: Lane Kiffin.
Admit it, you were secretly hoping it would end here, too. Who wouldn’t want to watch Kiffin go head to head with Alabama coach Nick Saban (who resurrected Kiffin’s career but eventually got tired of his antics), and LSU coach Ed Orgeron (who replaced Kiffin as interim coach at USC – a job Kiffin and Orgeron wanted and neither could hold).
That’s 3 of the best recruiters (Saban, Orgeron, Kiffin) going head-to-end for the top talent in the Southeast, and trying to keep another SEC West Division elite recruiter (Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M) from nudging in on the action. All in the same division in the best conference in college football. Woof.
So, to recap: Ole Miss, in 3 years, enabled and eventually fired a coach who lost his way, hired a good guy and threw him into the meatgrinder before firing him, too, and jumped right back into the risk/reward deep end by hiring Kiffin.
He was blown out of the NFL because late Raiders owner Al Davis said he was a systemic liar.
He left Tennessee after 1 season – and after racking up more than 10 secondary NCAA violations in 14 months on the job – for USC.
He was fired after 3 1/2 seasons at USC — while the team plane sat on the tarmac at LAX — after an embarrassing blowout loss at Arizona State.
He was told to go focus his new job at FAU after 3 seasons at Alabama (see: he was fired) – after an ugly College Football Playoff semifinal win over Washington, and before the National Championship Game against Clemson. Before the national championship game.
He won big at FAU and restored his reputation, and Ole Miss – after beating Alabama twice under Freeze – had fallen behind LSU, Alabama, Auburn, Texas A&M and Mississippi State and was desperate to stop the bleeding.
So here we are. If it works, it’s genius.
If it doesn’t? Ole Miss doesn’t give a damn what you think.
2. Can it actually work?
Ole Miss isn’t that far removed from one of the most respected coaches in all of college football roaming the sidelines and winning in Oxford (David Cutcliffe), and from Orgeron’s first failed experiment as a head coach.
But understand this: Cutcliffe and Freeze proved that with the right players, you can win at Ole Miss. Maybe even win enough to finally get over the stigma of being the only original West Division team to not play in the SEC Championship Game.
Cutcliffe should’ve played for the SEC Championship in 2003, after 3 years of strong recruiting and the play of Eli Manning brought the program to the precipice with a home game against LSU for the West Division title.
Jonathan Nichols, who made 23 of 24 field goals going into the game, missed 2 – including a 36-yarder that would have tied the game with 4 minutes to play in a 17-14 loss.
More than 10 years later – and after Orgeron proved you could land 5-star talent in Oxford, but won only 3 SEC games in 3 seasons (and set up Houston Nutt’s back-to-back Cotton Bowls) – Freeze’s 3rd Ole Miss team beat Alabama, then did it again a year later.
The 2015 team failed to win the division when Arkansas converted a 4th-and-25 with a prayer of a lateral, and kept the Rebels from a rematch with Florida (without QB Will Grier) to win their first SEC title since 1963.
So, yeah, it can be done. With talent and a little luck.
3. How it works, The Epilogue
It begins with winning over the current team, half of which, according to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, threatened to quit if the entire coaching staff was dismissed.
Offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez (and his spread option offense) has not been retained, and there will be others who won’t stick around for the Lane Train. He’s not for everyone.
Kiffin will hire a staff that can recruit, and a majority of those assistants will be young guys who can relate to the younger generation (that was his winning template at FAU).
Of course there’s a huge difference between the SEC and CUSA, but the idea of reaching the younger generation with younger coaches is still prevalent.
Kiffin took a chance on 24-year-old Charlie Weis Jr., as his offensive coordinator, and could do so again if Weis – or another young former FAU assistant, Kendal Briles — doesn’t get the FAU head-coaching job.
When he arrived in Oxford Sunday afternoon, there was a Twitter video gone viral of Kiffin leaving the airport and kissing babies (really, he was).
Lane Kiffin already kissing babies and being told “get you a burner phone” in Oxford pic.twitter.com/JSZIBL4UuZ
— Pick Your Poison (@pickpoisonpod) December 8, 2019
The man who gave him the baby to hold and kiss, then took his child, and left Kiffin with some sage advice: “Get you a burner phone.”
That might be the biggest move of all.
4. Changing of the offense
Sam Pittman, the best offensive line coach in college football, has left Georgia to take the Arkansas head-coaching job.
James Coley, the Bulldogs’ embattled offensive coordinator of one season, might be out, too. Or maybe Georgia coach Kirby Smart simply decides he has had enough of the old school, power run, throw over the top offense.
Maybe Smart has decided – like his mentor Alabama coach Nick Saban – that you have to evolve with the game and become more multiple.
After an ugly loss to LSU in the SEC Championship Game – where Georgia scored 10 points and had 286 total yards – it’s time for Smart to at least consider the idea. After the game, he defended quarterback Jake Fromm, who has regressed this season, by saying Fromm hadn’t regressed this season, but that Georgia needed to play better around him.
Meanwhile, Justin Fields transferred to Ohio State and accounted for 50 touchdowns in an offense more suited to his skills – instead of being forced into the crawl ball offense at Georgia during the 2018 season.
I would have felt a lot better with Smart’s postgame comments had he said, “Jake hasn’t regressed, we’ve failed him as coaches by not developing guys around him.”
Expect Georgia to scour the transfer portal for wide receivers and a tight end, and work more on developing George Pickens and Dominick Blaylock, freshmen with elite talent who never really put it all together this fall. The loss of TE Isaac Nauta – and Tennessee transfer Eli Wolf giving the Bulldogs essentially nothing – also contributed to Fromm’s struggles.
If Fromm returns for his senior season, the offense won’t change much. He’s not a dual-threat, and the changes will be more execution-based. If Fromm leaves for the NFL, there are any number of ways Smart can go with his offense (and his offensive coordinator), and his quarterback, which could be true freshman Carson Beck.
5. The Weekly Five
SEC bowl game picks against the spread
- LSU (-12.5) vs. Oklahoma
- Texas A&M (-4.5) vs. Oklahoma State
- Florida (-13.5) vs. Virginia
- Alabama vs. Michigan (+6.5)
- Auburn (-7.5) vs. Minnesota
- Georgia vs. Baylor (+7)
Last week: 4-1
6. Your tape is your résumé
An NFL scout breaks down an SEC draft-eligible player. This week: LSU QB Joe Burrow (updated from earlier this season).
“The thing that stands out for me is he gets better every game. He sees more every game, he makes more plays that you’d expect from a multi-year starter every game. His ceiling isn’t close to being reached. I’d like a little stronger arm and a better finish on some of those deep throws, but I really think that will come with more growth and maturity.
“He’s really good and smart about when to climb the pocket and buy time, and he’s accurate when moving. He can extend plays, but there will be a big difference in the plays he can extend in college and those he can extend in our league. It seems like the days of looking for something to question have just begun. He’s a fairly clean pick. It’s all ticky-tack stuff right now. Could he be the first player picked? I think the Bengals would take him right now.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s SEC Power Poll (and one big thing).
1. LSU: Tigers get to avoid Clemson in Playoff semifinals, and more important, face a known quantity: Oklahoma and former Alabama QB Jalen Hurts.
2. Georgia: Dogs aren’t as bad as the SEC Championship Game showed but clearly must do something with its stagnant offense over the offseason.
3. Florida: The Orange Bowl is big for momentum. Win 11 games, and your world is much different over the next 9 months. Lose to Virginia and questions seep in.
4. Auburn: Another season, another swing and miss for Arkansas and Gus Malzahn. More imperative for Malzahn: Make QB Bo Nix the elite player many believe he will be (I’m not buying it yet).
5. Alabama: Nick Saban went from the No. 1 ranking and another spot in the CFP, to out of the top 10, an injured star quarterback and maybe 7 players that could skip a useless bowl game.
6. Texas A&M: Aggies looking for their first win over a ranked team this season. No. 25 Oklahoma State isn’t LSU, but losing to the Cowboys take some steam from the Texas A&M offseason.
7. Tennessee: In any other year or just about any other time, Tennessee beats up on Indiana. Hoosiers good enough to send Tennessee packing for the offseason with numerous questions.
8. Kentucky: The Wildcats kept Mark Stoops, and there’s significant positive momentum around the program. But this is a tough spot, against the 27th rush defense in the nation, in a city (Charlotte) about 3 hours from Virginia Tech.
9. Missouri: The Tigers threw the ball the past 2 seasons with pro principles and OC Derek Dooley. That will ends with new coach Eli Drinkwitz.
10. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs have a solid recent history at minor bowls, and another spot in Nashville against overachieving Louisville should be another chance for Joe Moorhead to begin the process of rehabbing the offense.
11. Ole Miss: Want an idea of what Kiffin can do with QB John Rhys Plumlee? Look at Jalen Hurts as a freshman at Alabama, and see how well he was incorporated.
12. South Carolina: Odds are Will Muschamp hires his friend (and former Georgia offensive coordinator) Mike Bobo as his offensive coordinator. When it’s win or walk, you trust those you know.
13. Vanderbilt: The 15 extra bowl practices have been critical for Vandy in 2 of the past 4 years under Derek Mason. He won’t have them this winter.
14. Arkansas: Sam Pittman was the most popular coach on the Arkansas staff when he worked for Bret Bielema. He wasn’t the first choice, but then again, neither was Dan Mullen. And we see where that got Florida.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: How do you expect Alabama to deal with the loss of Tua (Tagovailoa) and all of those guys that are expected to sit out the bowl game? That’s a lot of good players that won’t be suiting up. I love Orlando for the holidays, but I won’t be going there for that.
Scott: I always love Saban-coached Alabama teams when they’re questioned. To be fair, Mac Jones threw 2 pick-6s, or the Tide beats Auburn, finishes 11-1 and is playing in the Sugar or Orange Bowl right now.
Saban can use the “no one thinks we can do it” idea, but Alabama could be missing Tua, any combination (or all) of WRs Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith and Henry Ruggs III, RB Najee Harris, OTs Jedrick Wills and Alex Leatherwood, and CB Trevon Diggs. That’s brutal. But can you blame those players? They’re all potential 1st-round picks, and they’re all endangering significant NFL contracts by playing in a useless bowl game. It’s financially reckless for them to play. If that means Alabama can’t be Michigan in the Citrus Bowl, then so be it.
9. Numbers game
19.7. Florida has played 4 times in the Orange Bowl, and is undefeated with an average margin of victory at 19.7 ppg. A Steve Spurrier-quarterbacked Florida team beat Missouri 24-12 in the 1967 game, and Spurrier-coached teams won the game in 1999 (31-10 over Syracuse) and 2002 (56-23 over Maryland). Florida’s last game in the Orange Bowl was the 2008 BCS National Championship Game, a 24-14 win over Oklahoma.
10. Quote to note
LSU TE Thaddeus Moss on defenses trying to stop LSU’s high-powered offense: “Nothing anybody tries seems to work.”