1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …

It’s time now. He has served enough penance, swallowed enough pride, embraced enough humility.

It’s time Lane Kiffin got another shot at a blue-blood program. A true, football is everything, money is nothing program to call his own and develop into an undisputed monster.

He had a chance years ago at USC and was too immature, too selfish and in over his head. Eight years after the infamous firing on the tarmac of LAX, the past can no longer be held against him.

He’s ready now after rebuilding Ole Miss in less than 2 seasons, and more important – in this age of NIL contracts and social media and brand-savvy players – he’s the perfect fit to steer a blue-blood battleship into the belly of the beast that is new age college athletics.

“I’m not saying we’re great,” Kiffin said after a 29-19 win over Texas A&M. “But it’s a step closer from good to great.”

What a fitting analogy.

Kiffin may not be there just yet, but he’s as close to a coach ready to battle with a heavyweight program as just about any other coach looking for those rare jobs.

Exhibit A: last weekend at Ole Miss.

The ESPN GameDay circus arrived in town, and – here’s the key — Kiffin wasn’t the monkey with the organ grinder.

He was a measured ambassador of the cutting edge program he has built in Oxford, and a sense of calm later that night on the sidelines — when Ole Miss could do no wrong in the first half, and no right in the second half while holding onto its biggest victory in 2 mercurial seasons under Kiffin.

Gone are the days at Tennessee of saying outlandish things about opponents he knew weren’t true because any publicity is good publicity. Or gimmick tricks (see: deflating balls) and a lost locker room at USC.

Or innovative work on the field at Alabama, and immature behavior off it (Joey Freshwater). Or even the first steps back to respectability as head coach at FAU.

He’s a different coach now, with a different idea of how to win and how to manage a program. He and Alabama coach Nick Saban didn’t get along all the time, but Kiffin was smart enough to soak up everything that has made Saban the greatest college coach ever.

Kiffin used to get lost during games, his face buried in his beloved call sheet. When you’re one of the game’s best play-callers, it’s easy to get sidetracked on what comes next – while ignoring the city burning all around you.

That was the USC bowl game in 2012, on a cold, dreary afternoon in El Paso, Texas, while Georgia Tech ran the ball and ate clock and Kiffin couldn’t figure out a way to keep up and was lost in his play sheet. Meanwhile, the team was so fractured, it eventually boiled over to fights in the postgame locker room.

Four games into the following season at USC, he was fired, a coach and a personality not ready for the big time. He learned under Saban for 3 years, then left (like all Saban’s reclamation projects do) and started on the bottom rung at FAU.

When he got the FAU job, he made sure he hired an innovative offensive coordinator (Charlie Weis, Jr.), and give him the offense and play calling. He had to become more of a CEO, more of a program manager and developer.

He did the same at Ole Miss, this time getting former Baylor assistant Jeff Lebby to run his offense and install the proficient system Art Briles used to score all of those points in the late 2000s and early 2010s. He hired DJ Durkin, who ran successful defenses at Florida and Michigan, to run the Ole Miss defense.

Now here we are, after a promising first season despite limitations from the pandemic, with a realistic possibility doing something in Year 2 that has never been done at Ole Miss: win 11 games.

2. It’s all about players

Kiffin has always been among the nation’s best recruiters, going all the way back to when he was an assistant under Pete Carroll at USC and landing some of the best high school talent in the nation the became national champions with the Trojans.

In his first job at Tennessee, in his first recruiting class, there were 3 top-100 players who waited until after National Signing Day to sign. Kiffin got all 3 to Knoxville.

He was the key recruiter at Alabama, fortifying an offense full of fast, athletic skill players. His first year at Ole Mis, he had the 34th-ranked recruiting class.

In Year 2, it improved to No. 17.

The results on the field – where it matters – are more impressive. Ole Miss was 5-5 last year despite a defense that was 127th out of 128 FBS teams and still beat No. 11 Indiana in the Outback Bowl.

Kiffin got a signature win last weekend against Texas A&M and has developed QB Matt Corral from a talented but petulant player when he arrived in 2020, to a tough, mature leader who will most likely be the first quarterback taken in the 2022 NFL Draft.

More telling: The defense that was dead last among Power 5 schools in 2020 has gone from giving up 38.3 points per game to 26.2 this season – including the impressive work last weekend against Texas A&M. Over the past 4 games, Ole Miss is giving up 20.2 ppg.

The Rebels are No. 1 in the SEC in sacks (35) and turnover margin (+12), and the offense is No. 1 in plays of 10+ yards (199). That’s how you win games in the SEC.

Wins over Vanderbilt and rival Mississippi State to finish the regular season likely lands Ole Miss in a New Year’s 6 bowl and puts the Rebels in position to win 11 games for the first time in school history.

3. The time is now, The Epilogue

There is 1 blue-blood opening (LSU) in the SEC, and the possibility of another (Florida) is looming.

The SEC is Kiffin’s home base, where he has proven he can recruit and win and change the value of a program – both as an assistant and a head coach.

There’s no reason to believe he can’t do it again at a much bigger level, with more expectations. The more he wins at Ole Miss, the more it can no longer be ignored.

Because as important as recruiting is in any college football job, it’s everything in the SEC. It has moved Georgia from a team on the verge to a team annihilating everything in its path with a defense full of 5-star recruits.

It has moved Texas A&M from an annual underachiever to a team that can play with (and beat) anyone in the SEC. It’s how Alabama has dominated college football for the past decade.

Now imagine Kiffin recruiting with the LSU or Florida brand, and recruiting with his program’s footprint being the state of Louisiana or Florida.

It’s hard to ignore what could be, especially with his track record of developing offenses in an era where offense is king. Would he leave Ole Miss, where he’s comfortable and could build off his first 2 seasons?

The ceiling at Ole Miss is much lower than at LSU and Florida, and the ability to win championships is much greater. It’s a no-brainer.

4. The highs and lows in Alabama

A tale of two quarterbacks in the state of Alabama: Bryce Young is a Heisman Trophy favorite for the Tide, while time may be running out on Bo Nix at Auburn.

Alabama likely will play a minimum of 4 more games, and could play 5, and Young is quietly putting up a better season (statistically) than Mac Jones’ record-setting season of 2020.

Young has 33 TDs and just 3 INTs, and if the Tide plays 5 more games (reaching the College Football Playoff National Championship Game), Young is on pace to throw for more than 4,500 yards and 50 TDs. Jones threw for 4,500 yards and 41 TDs last season.

The dominance of Georgia’s defense, and a lack of impressive Alabama victories, have Young playing in a vacuum of sorts. He’s still high among all Heisman Watch lists, but his season has been overshadowed by Georgia’s run – and because many are waiting to see how Young and the Tide offense fare against the Georgia defense.

One more thing to consider: Young isn’t working with DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle.

“He makes every throw look easy,” an SEC defensive coordinator said of Young. “But he absolutely kills you with his accuracy when he escapes (the pocket).”

Nix, meanwhile, has struggled too often in big games over the past 5 weeks of the season – 3 of those games losses (Georgia, Texas A&M, Mississippi State).

One SEC defensive coordinator told me of Nix: “He does nothing that gets you sideways. He’ll run around and make a play, but if you squeeze on the outside and stay gap sound on the interior, forget it. He’ll make a couple of plays, but he’s not beating you.”

Auburn has played 3 seasons with Nix at quarterback and is 21-13 overall, and 14-10 in SEC games. To be fair to Nix, he has dealt with 2 head coaches and 3 offensive coordinators – and a ton of uncertainty.

Next season may be as simple as Nix moving on, or Auburn moving somewhere else with a quarterback from the transfer portal. Unless something strange happens (see: a win over Alabama), Auburn will likely finish 7-5 in its first season under coach Bryan Harsin – and a second straight season of minimal improvement from Nix.

5. The Weekly Five

Five picks against the spread

  • Arkansas at Alabama (-19.5)
  • Florida at Missouri (+7)
  • Auburn (-10) at South Carolina
  • Vanderbilt (+37) at Ole Miss
  • South Alabama at Tennessee (-27.5)

Last week: 3-2.
Season: 32-21-1

6. Your tape is your résumé

An NFL scout breaks down a draft-eligible SEC player. This week: Mississippi State CB Martin Emerson Jr.

“He’s a big kid, long and rangy and he’s physical. I love the way he plays. He has really helped himself this season. He has improved in both man and zone, and he’s such a physical force out there. His talent just jumps off the tape. To me, he’s pushing (LSU CB (Derek) Stingley as the best corner (in the SEC), and he’s more consistent than (Florida CB Kaiir) Elam. He reminds me a lot of Jaycee Horn, and that’s saying a lot since you’re talking about a top 10 guy there. (Emerson) has all the tools you’re looking for, and he has been way more consistent this season. I have no doubt he’ll go in the first 15 (picks of the draft).”

7. Powered Up

This week’s Power Poll and one big thing: movement on the coaching staff.

1. Georgia: Dan Lanning is 35, and an elite recruiter — and has coordinated a top-5 defense (2020) and the No. 1 defense (2021) in the nation.

2. Alabama: This will likely be Bill O’Brien’s only season in Tuscaloosa. He’ll have both college and NFL offers.

3. Ole Miss: OC Jeff Lebby has a high profile (because Kiffin insists it’s Lebby’s offense, and has pushed his OC to the forefront), and is a prime candidate for Ole Miss job should Kiffin leave.

4. Texas A&M: DC Mike Elko has been patient when filtering potential HC jobs. This might be the offseason he jumps.

5. Arkansas: DC Barry Odom did a solid job at Missouri, and will be picky with jobs that would take him from an ideal situation with his good friend, Sam Pittman.

6. Mississippi State: DC Zach Arnett’s defense has been strong in 2 seasons at MSU, and he’ll likely be a strong candidate for the New Mexico State job when it opens (he’s a native of Albuquerque).

7. Tennessee: OC Alex Golesh is a terrific recruiter, and ADs will be intrigued by the Vols’ tempo offense.

8. Kentucky: OC Liam Coen has completely changed the UK offense, and will likely have opportunities in the NFL as a position coach if he wants to return to the league.

9. Auburn: DC Derek Mason is a complete package as a head coach. Don’t let his history with the heavy lift of Vanderbilt change that reality.

10. LSU: More than likely a majority of the staff will be let go. DC Daronte Jones: first (successful) season as a coordinator will give him opportunities in the NFL and CFB.

11. Missouri: WR/QB coach Bush Hamdan fell out of favor with Jimmy Lake at Washington and wound up at Mizzou. He will again be an OC at the CFB level, or a QB coach in the NFL.

12. Florida: Fired DC Todd Grantham will find another job in the NFL or CFB. He’s good for 2 or 3 seasons before his risk/reward style wears thin.

13. South Carolina: STC Pete Lembo, who had a nice run as HC at Ball State from 2011-15, will again get feelers for smaller HC jobs. Does he bite this time?

14. Vanderbilt: OL coach AJ Blazek has a strong reputation in the coaching community, and has a strong track record prior to joining Vandy this season.

8. Ask and you shall receive

Matt: When are you going to admit you were wrong about Stetson Bennett and coach Kirby Smart was right? There’s a reason he’s the coach and your (sic) just a dumb sports writer. — Terry Michaels, Atlanta.

Terry: Let me turn it around on you: When are you going to realize that Smart is doing the same thing he did in 2018? He’s fixated by winning the way he saw Nick Saban win over and over: great defense, smart offense, a game manager at quarterback. It blew up in his face in 2018 during the SEC Championship Game, after Alabama figured out Jake Fromm and there was no changeup with Justin Fields.

This same movie is playing again, only the names have changed at quarterback. From Fromm and Fields to Bennett and JT Daniels. The one saving grace for Smart: Daniels will be ready when the offense can’t move on Alabama.

Think about this: Who exactly has Georgia played this season? Its toughest game was against Florida, which trailed 3-0 with 2 minutes to play in the first half before imploding. If the game stays 3-0 at the half, Daniels could easily have started the third quarter.

As it was, Bennett went from playing the worst game of his season in two quarters to no stress with a 24-7 lead in a matter of 2 minutes. Look, Bennett is a great story. He’s fun to watch. But does Georgia beat Alabama or Ohio State or Oregon – teams that can score points on the Georgia defense — with Bennett?

Daniels will play this season. It’s only a matter of time. More than likely, it will be early in the SEC Championship Game against Alabama – and probably throughout the Playoff.

9. Numbers

441. Missouri TB Tyler Badie is quietly putting up a monster season in Columbia. He has 1,239 yards and 12 TDs, and likely has 3 games remaining this season to move into the top 10 single-season SEC rushing record book.

Alabama’s Trent Richardson is No. 10 on the all-time SEC single-season rushing list with 1,679 yards in 2011. Badie needs 441 yards over the next 2 games (or 3 if the Tigers beat Florida or Arkansas and get bowl eligible).

If Missouri becomes bowl eligible, Badie needs to average 147 yards per game to pass Richardson and move into 10th place. He is averaging 123.9 yards per game.

10. Quote to note

Alabama coach Nick Saban: “It’s hard to win. I see people getting beat – what was the Florida score against (Samford)? I mean, do you want me to be critical of my team because we had to punt once in the first quarter and they got a field goal? I’m not gonna do it.”