First and 10: Lane Kiffin has turned the corner. Now, can he bring home an SEC title?
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
We’re one season into the experiment, and already it’s beginning to look like Lane Kiffin has turned the corner on his coaching career.
Right into the passing lane.
We’re all defined by track records, by who we are and the decisions we’ve made – and the consequences of those decisions. If we do nothing else when analyzing Kiffin in his second stint as a Power 5 coach, we must admit this: He’s boring at Ole Miss.
And boring, everyone, is a good thing.
“I’m sure there will be a lot of attention,” Kiffin said, when asked about growing expectations for the 2021 season.
That, everyone, is the best possible answer to what years ago would’ve been a loaded question that Kiffin knocked the cover off, complete with nonsensical bravado at someone else’s expense.
He’s still Fun Kiffin on social media, still a coach who uses various platforms better than most to fuel recruiting. He’s still the player’s coach who reaches young men, recruiting as well as anyone in the sport and then developing offensive skill players like few can.
He’s still the best play-caller in college football, a distinctive and unique approach that’s lethal with its audacity. All of this was never in question.
The only question with Kiffin since he was forced to leave the apprenticeship of Nick Saban one game early in 2016, is when would Good Kiffin eventually unseat Bad Kiffin. When, for lack of a better explanation, would he put away childish things grow into all that potential?
When would he control a locker room instead of it controlling him?
When would he move beyond staring at his play sheet on game day, and become more of a CEO coach who prepared and motivated the entire team?
One difficult, unsettling pandemic season has given us a clear idea. A scenario ripe for failure with Bad Kiffin — with all of those unexpected distractions and detours — became a defining moment in his coaching career with Good Kiffin.
“When Lane was young, he was a victim of his own dream, of what he thought a coach would be,” a former Kiffin assistant told me. “I’ve never seen a guy who knew so much about football, yet spent so little time executing the big plan. Now he’s on his way to figuring it out. I’d like to say it’s because he’s older, but he’s working at it, too. That should scare the hell out of everyone. Because when he gets it, the result will be an absolute machine wherever he’s coaching.”
As crazy as it sounds, that place could be Ole Miss.
It’s not L.A. with its glitz and glam, and it’s not South Florida with its fun and sun.
But it’s the quintessential college town with deep pocket boosters and an administration not afraid to dream (and build) big. All it takes now: players.
Kiffin and his staff recently landed a recruiting class ranked 17th by 247Sports, the program’s highest ranking since the infamous 2016 class that included NFL players Greg Little, Benito Jones, A.J. Brown and DK Metcalf.
That class was ranked No.5 in the nation, and was the beginning of the end for former coach Hugh Freeze, who brought Ole Miss to heights it hadn’t experienced since the 1963 SEC championship season. Freeze held together that class despite looming NCAA issues (from a previous Freeze class) by leaking false information to various media members that the NCAA issues were from the Houston Nutt era and not his.
The allegations of paying recruits, the deceit in landing the 2016 class and finally, the embarrassment a year later of revelations that he used his university phone to call “massage therapists” ended a meteoric rise to the top of the SEC. The program fell back under good guy former player Matt Luke (who was in an untenable situation), and desperation led to reaching out to Kiffin.
While successful at FAU, Kiffin needed the perfect situation to get back into Power 5 football. He didn’t want a perennial loser, and frankly, didn’t need another bright lights/hot fire job. Not yet, anyway.
Ole Miss was the perfect fit – and now it could be much more.
Look, toppling Alabama in the SEC West takes a unique team and rare circumstance (see: LSU, 2019), and a bunch of elite players. Ole Miss isn’t there yet, but Kiffin says the Rebels return 90% of last year’s team that finished 5-5 and won the Outback Bowl.
A team that could hang 40 or more points on anyone in the SEC, but could give up 50 any week. A team that, despite those defensive woes, made a significant stand in the bowl season against Indiana.
The Hoosiers led all Power 5 teams in interceptions, and earlier in the season forced star Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields into the worst game of his career.
Ole Miss didn’t commit a turnover, and beat the 11th-ranked Hoosiers with a late touchdown and – ready for this? – a defensive stand.
That Ole Miss team returns to a West Division in transition, and with a handful of immediate impact players from the 2021 recruiting class.
Why not dream big? As long as it stays as boring off the field as it is electric on it.
2. The QB guru
From Day 1, Kiffin’s coaching reputation – from his days as a tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator at USC — was built around offense.
He quickly became a guy who could develop quarterbacks and call plays and ignite and offense. Every quarterback got better – significantly better – under Kiffin’s tutelage.
From Jonathan Crompton at Tennessee, to Matt Barkley at USC, to Blake Sims and Jake Coker and Jalen Hurts at Alabama, all the way to Matt Corral last season at Ole Miss. Everyone gets better, with career-defining improvement.
Crompton was a career backup, and got a shot in the NFL after playing one season with Kiffin. Barkley is still in the NFL. Sims had moved to wideout before setting numerous school passing records in one year under Kiffin.
Coker couldn’t get on the field at Florida State, and won a national title at Alabama. Hurts went from a dual-threat experiment to a legitimate, dangerous thrower.
Then there’s Corral, an uncontrolled ball of excitement in his first two seasons at Ole Miss. A guy known more for his fiery temperament than his live arm.
After one season with Kiffin, he was completing 70% of his passes, and his numbers rocketed in every category. In 10 games last season, he accounted for 3,843 yards and 33 TDs – his first full season as a starter.
The development in Year 2 under Kiffin could lead to a rare season, and that can only lead to one thing: a higher demand for Kiffin.
3. The best fit
If Ole Miss makes the jump to competing for a New Year’s 6 bowl, Kiffin will have a decision to make: stay and reap the rewards of his work, or move to a bigger (out of the SEC West Division) job.
The college game is all about offense, and the most important position (quarterback) on the field. You’re not winning games, much less championships, without that position figured out.
That, more than anything, helps erase the stumbles of the past for Kiffin and allows university presidents and administrators to zero in on the now — and the good that he accomplished at Tennessee, USC, Alabama and FAU.
The now is this: a quarterback-friendly, exciting offense that puts fans in seats and sells tickets and apparel and fun. That’s right, fun.
Kiffin has gone from the sophomoric ideals of telling a recruit he’d be pumping gas if he went to another school (that player, Alshon Jeffery, has played 10 years in the NFL), or that he’d turn in another coach for a recruiting violation (when he and his staff at Tennessee racked up 12 secondary violations in 14 months on the job), or intentionally deflating game balls at USC, to a guy who has made nearly every right move since returning as a head coach at FAU in 2017.
He’s not perfect; what coach is? But he clearly has learned how to rein in Bad Kiffin while allowing Good Kiffin to breathe and develop and flourish.
4. Magnolia mayhem
Let’s face it, the Ole Miss and Mississippi State jobs are difficult and unforgiving, and for the most part, come with an expiration date.
You either produce unique and move on (Tommy Tuberville, Dan Mullen), or you struggle and join everyone else in the scrapheap of what could’ve been in the Magnolia state.
So who’s expiration runs out quicker: Kiffin or Mississippi State coach Mike Leach?
The answer is Kiffin, but not because of the aforementioned steppingstone or tombstone mentality.
Leach will win at Mississippi State. His offensive typically begins to turn and churn in Year 2 (like it did at Oklahoma where he was OC, and like it did at Texas Tech and Washington State), and he’ll eventually do what successful Mississippi State coaches do: go to bowl games, and occasionally have a team that plays games of significance in November.
Translation: He wins with a similar trendline that he built at Washington State, and wins long enough that Mississippi State is his last coaching job.
Kiffin, on the other hand, is much more likely to win enough to get a bigger Power 5 or NFL job.
Bottom line: Neither will be fired — a rarity in those jobs.
5. The Weekly 5
Five betting lines from the first week of games, 4 from the SEC and 1 bonus pick from the south, via Fan Duel SportsBook:
- Alabama (-17.5) vs. Miami
- Georgia (+3) vs. Clemson
- Ole Miss (-7) vs. Louisville
- LSU (-3.5) at UCLA
- Notre Dame (-9.5) at Florida State
6. Your tape is your résumé
An NFL scout breaks down a draft-eligible SEC player. This week: Arkansas WR Treylon Burks.
“Love this kid. Absolutely love him. He got lost last year in the wash of all those Alabama receivers and Florida guys, and didn’t really get the media love. He’s big and strong. He’s 6-3, and a legit 225-230 pounds. That’s a big man. He reminds me of Laviska Shenault, except he’s longer. He has a much bigger catch radius.
“I have a guy on the staff (at Arkansas) who, when they first got there last year, called and said you gotta come look at this kid. You won’t believe it. COVID hits and we’re limited in what we can do, but boy, you watch him on tape and you’ll fall in love with that ability. He can be more consistent, and I’d love to see him really make a critical step and continue to grow despite a new quarterback.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s post-spring Power Poll, and the most important game of the season.
Georgia: vs. Clemson, Sept. 4 (Charlotte): Forget about the Gators, this game sets the tone for the season. Lose here, and two things happen: Doubt creeps in for a championship-ready team, and there’s no wiggle room for another misstep.
Alabama: at Florida, Sept. 18: COVID restrictions are gone, and QB Bryce Young and the growing Alabama offense will play in front of 91,000 at Florida Field against a Gators defense coach Dan Mullen promises will be drastically different than 2020.
Florida: vs. Georgia, Oct. 30 (Jacksonville): It’s a 2-team race in the East Division, and the Gators can lose to Alabama and still win the East by beating Georgia and winning out. This bitter rivalry goes in runs, and Florida’s turn might have begun in 2020.
Texas A&M: vs. Alabama, Oct. 9: Aggies might have the best combination of lines of scrimmage in the SEC, but that won’t be enough unless QB Haynes King can play smart (no turnovers) and make critical 3rd-down throws.
LSU: at Mississippi State, Sept. 25: It’s not just payback from last year’s embarrassment. With a win at UCLA in the season-opener, LSU has 1 difficult road game in Starkville standing in the way of a potential 6-0 start.
Ole Miss: vs. LSU, Oct. 23: The difference between 8 or 9 wins (or maybe 9 or 10), can help establish Ole Miss in the West Division, and as important, in the state and the southeast in recruiting battles. The No.1 player in Mississippi can’t sign with LSU (like he did in 2021) if Kiffin wants to win big.
Missouri: at Boston College, Sept. 25: We’ve seen this end badly before: a sleepy non-con road against an average team with NFL talent at QB (hello, Wyoming). Get a winnable game here, and the Tigers could be 6-0 heading into a home game with Texas A&M.
Auburn: at LSU, Oct. 2: It’s tempting to use Sept. 18 game at Penn State, but no matter what happens in the State College, the season begins with rival LSU and a brutal 5-game stretch (LSU, Georgia, at Arkansas, Ole Miss, at Texas A&M) for new coach Bryan Harsin.
Kentucky: vs. Florida, Oct. 2: UK has learned how to beat the Gators, and if everything breaks just right, could be 4-0 and full of momentum when Florida comes to the Commonwealth.
Arkansas: vs. Texas, Sept. 11: Sam Pittman already has endeared himself to the Razorbacks faithful. Get a win over bitter rival Texas, and the state will be beside itself. Bonus: a young team gets a boost of confidence heading into a difficult schedule.
Mississippi State: at Memphis, Sept. 18: The Bulldogs will get a big non-con win over NC State in Week 2, but can’t afford a slip in Week 3 against Memphis – especially with LSU, at Texas A&M and Alabama games up next.
Tennessee: at Florida, Sept. 25: Baby steps, Vols fans. If UT is fortunate enough to beat Pitt in Week 3, there’s a hope for 3-0 heading into Gainesville. Show up strong, avoid an early knockout and build off it for more winnable East Division games.
South Carolina: vs. Kentucky, Sept. 25: There’s no guarantee the Gamecocks win at ECU in Week 2, and they won’t win Week 3 at Georgia. That leaves Kentucky as the line in the sand, a chance to get a win and get on a mini roll of sorts with games against Troy, at Tennessee, and Vanderbilt up next.
Vanderbilt: vs. Stanford, Sept. 18: New coach Clark Lea wants to build Vandy into a tough, athletic team that’s a difficult out for any team in the SEC. Look across the field at Stanford, and there’s the academics-first model.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: I don’t know why everyone is just penciling in Alabama a Playoff team. Doesn’t there have to be a letdown with the loss of all that talent on offense and new coaches? Sandy Frederick, Atlanta.
Sandy: Better players win a lot of games. When you recruit like Alabama recruits, it’s difficult to not project championships despite unproven players in important roles. But to your point, there’s absolutely some hesitation in the reality that Alabama will start a new quarterback (a former 5-star recruit), and needs at least one true freshman wideout to make a significant impact. And, as much as anything, there must be chemistry built with new offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien.
One of the most fascinating subplots of this season at Alabama is the relationship between coach Nick Saban and O’Brien, a fiery and successful coach in college and the NFL. O’Brien’s best friend is Doug Marrone, the new offensive line coach at Alabama. This could go exceedingly well (as most expect), or if, for some reason, it doesn’t, the dynamics between two strong personalities (Saban and O’Brien) will be can’t-miss theater that could leak into the rest of the staff.
1. Just how good are Texas A&M’s line of scrimmages? One scout told me last week the Aggies have the No.1 offensive lineman in the draft (OT Kenyon Green), and the No. 1 interior defensive lineman (DeMarvin Leal).
10. Quote to note
“The most important thing is the product on the field. The other stuff is good, so that’s why we try to be creative with it. But we can go out and play really well, and that will help more than anything.” – Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin on unique ways of promoting his team.