The top offense in the FBS, the leading Heisman Trophy candidate and a coach combating “rat poison” will be on one sideline Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
No. 1 Alabama and Nick Saban will be on the other.
In this case, it’s Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin who has the most-productive offense in the FBS. The Rebels average 59.2 points and 635.3 yards per game. Matt Corral is the front-runner for the Heisman Trophy, and that offense is gearing up for a sequel to last year’s 63-48 shoutout in which the teams combined for 1,370 yards in an Alabama victory.
“It’s trademark Lane Kiffin,” ESPN analyst Paul Finebaum told Sporting News. “It’s innovative. It’s daring. It’s unconventional, but it starts with the quarterback. You can’t do any of this if you don’t have a really great quarterback, and he does. That was one thing that frustrated him at Alabama. He wasn’t quite able to have the cuffs taken off.”
“Trademark Kiffin” has taken on a new meaning in 2021. It’s not the coach who left Tennessee after one season for USC in 2009. Or the coach who was fired at USC on the tarmac in 2013. Or the offensive coordinator at Alabama who Saban fired in the middle of the College Football Playoffs after he accepted a job at Florida Atlantic in 2016. Kiffin is a trendy coach with the hot offense that everyone loves to retweet.
Kiffin is fighting the good fight against “rat poison” with the best weapon possible. Emojis.
That’s the Kiffin that generates the most publicity each week, especially this week with another matchup against Saban coming, but that’s not the substance Finebaum sees behind the turn-around at Ole Miss.
“It’s frankly overdone,” Finebaum said. “There’s a stigma about him now that whatever he does or says is funny. He’s really not that funny. He’s better at social media than he is at press conferences.”
In fact, Kiffin’s press conferences have a familiar setup. There’s a Coca-Cola bottle to his right.
We all know where he learned that.
The old odd couple
Kiffin was asked Monday what has been the underlying reason for Alabama’s long-term success through the BCS and College Football Playoff eras. He produced a two-word answer:
“Nick Saban,” Kiffin said. “Alabama has been around a long time. They haven’t won like this for a long time. It’s not like it’s just the school. It’s one person. He’s been able to maintain it through tons of different players, tons of different coaches. More coaching turnover than I bet anyone has ever had.”
Saban hired Kiffin after the 2013 season in a move that re-defined the Crimson Tide in the CFP era. Alabama had just lost to Auburn in the “Kick Six” game and Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl to end the 2013 season. Kiffin was a few months removed from being labeled the “Miley Cyrus of college football” by Finebaum after being fired at USC.
The dynamic worked. Saban allowed Kiffin to open up the offense with record-setting results. Amari Cooper was a Heisman Trophy finalist in 2014. Derrick Henry won the Heisman in 2015. Alabama reached the College Football Playoff in three straight seasons and won the national championship in 2015. Kiffin left Alabama after the CFP semifinal victory against Washington for FAU in 2016, but both coaches got what they needed from that restrictive three-year relationship.
“For all of the conversation that Lane Kiffin was saved by Nick Saban and that rehab, it’s also worth pointing out that Lane Kiffin may have saved Nick Saban’s career as well,” Finebaum said. “What Lane did was open the gateway for the quarterbacks that we now know and he was responsible for that. Until then, the quarterbacks had been pretty predictable.”
Bryce Young is in line to be Alabama’s third straight quarterback to be a Heisman Trophy finalist behind Tua Tagovailoa and Mac Jones. Ole Miss, however, might have one too in 2021.
The new odd couple
Kiffin does his best to displace the Heisman Trophy talk surrounding Corral, who has 997 passing yards and 14 total TDs with zero interceptions through three games. It’s the stat-stuffing line that gets attention in September.
“For Matt, for this team, none of that means anything,” Kiffin said. “Just like the final ranking — being in the top for some Heisman media talk now means nothing. It only matters if you win the thing. But sure, there is something to that about energy.”
BENDER: Week 5 picks for Alabama-Ole Miss, all Top 25 games
That energy was evident in Kiffin’s debut at Ole Miss in 2020. No. 5 Florida won 51-35, but Corral took hold of the starting job with 395 passing yards and three TDs. Kiffin and Corral noticed the Gators sticking to the same coverages and formations, so they adjusted the script.
“We were actually drawing things up on the sidelines,” Kiffin said. “That’s hard to execute when you haven’t been with people and haven’t had reps. His ability to do that and change on the fly was impressive.”
Corral continues to thrive in the offense, too, even if he’s a different kind of personality. Corral is not on social media. When asked about the Heisman Trophy talk he simply said, “That’s cool right?”
Corral is that California-cool quarterback. He has four TD passes of 40 yards or more, but that is a product of gaining trust from Kiffin and offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby. Corral’s definition of “fun” is different. That means showing up at the team facility at 5:30 a.m. That means working out route details with receivers to find the right windows. That means executing that wide-open offense in real time.
“I feel like that fun thing is just Coach Kiffin and Coach Lebby trusting me to get to the right spot,” Corral said. “We can keep calling the deep shot plays over and over and over, but if I keep forcing it down-field and not getting any yards, we can’t keep running it. As long as I’m hitting my check-down and keep getting to where I’m supposed to go, then they can keep calling those plays.”
Kiffin is impressed with that development, too.
“He continues to get better this year protecting the ball,” Kiffin said. “That’ll be huge again. I think I saw a stat somewhere on TV or something that the only teams have ever beat Alabama (under Saban in the regular season) threw zero interceptions.” (The last team to throw a pick and beat Alabama during the regular season was LSU in 2011.)
The opportunity is there again. Saban is 23-0 against former Alabama assistants. He’s 2-0 against Kiffin. Alabama beat Tennessee 12-10 on Oct. 24, 2009 when Terrence Cody blocked the go-ahead field goal as time expired. Last year’s shootout was Albaama’s closest game in the regular season.
Finebaum remembers joking on “Get Up” that Kiffin would be the first former assistant to beat Saban, which would not have seemed possible in 2013. Finebaum said there’s a small chance in 2021, and that’s because Kiffin isn’t just another Saban disciple.
He worked with Saban. He worked under former USC coach Pete Carroll. Kiffin’s father Monte’s career began in 1966. Lane Kiffin understands that old guard well, and that has created another dynamic heading into Saturday’s matchup.
Alabama vs. Ole Miss, 2020
“There are very few coaches that Nick Saban allows himself to think about,” Finebaum said. “I think Lane is in that rarified group. I genuinely believe Lane Kiffin gets in Nick Saban’s head. I don’t mean that it keeps him up at night, but it makes him uncomfortable at times. He knows how undisciplined Lane is, which has to scare you.”
Kiffin, meanwhile, threw out a few jabs. He mentioned “free agency” when breaking down Alabama’s roster. He referenced “rat poison” a few times. He also mentioned Florida’s game plan in a 31-29 nail-biter on Sept. 11.
“It wasn’t a secret formula,” Kiffin said. “They blocked them well at times. They made the safeties miss and had some good schemes. And the quarterback can run himself. That’s usually the formula against anybody, but especially them.”
That’s the formula Kiffin could take into Saturday, and a few plays will likely get drawn up along the way.
Are the Rebels ready for this moment?
Corral corrected himself after saying they weren’t worried as much about playing Alabama this season. Everybody has to worry about the Crimson Tide. For the first time in a while though, Ole Miss should give the Crimson Tide something to think about.
There is enough “rat poison” to deal with on both sidelines this time.
“We’re not worried about who we’re playing,” Corral said. “We’re worried about how we handle each practice individually,” Corral said. “Even though they are a great team and they’re the best team we’ll play this year, we’re not worried about them right now.”
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