BATON ROUGE – Lane Kiffin has done this before.
He talks so glowingly about another place, one wonders if he wants to enter the NCAA Transfer Portal himself.
Kiffin did it last year after playing at Tennessee, where he was the head coach in 2009 before going on to USC. He heaped praise on Neyland Stadium’s 102,455 capacity, crowd noise and atmosphere.
Ole Miss, where Kiffin has been the head coach since 2020 and has been doing quite well, has Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, which can be very loud next to the finest of atmospheres at The Grove. But it seats only 64,038, which would be a horrible crowd at Neyland or at LSU’s 102,321-seat Tiger Stadium, where Kiffin will be Saturday.
No. 7 Ole Miss (7-0, 3-0 SEC) and LSU (5-2, 3-1) kick off at 3:30 p.m. on CBS.
Kiffin was a popular name among LSU fans and media during LSU athletic director Scott Woodward’s search for a new coach last year after firing Ed Orgeron, who is an old friend of Kiffin’s from their USC and Tennessee days.
And Kiffin sure sounded this week like he would have liked to become the LSU coach. Either that or he is just respectful of LSU. No, he’s not blowing smoke all that much. Kiffin is one of the more candid and honest coaches there is.
“One of the hardest places in the country to play,” Kiffin said of Tiger Stadium. “We’ve been on the road a few times, but nothing like this. Excited for the opportunity against the elite personnel that we”ll be facing. This is the most talented opponent, by far, that we will have played.”
LSU’s talent is nothing like what it had three years or even last year or the year before, but it is not far behind Ole Miss, which continues to play above its head and talent because of Lane Kiffin. Ole Miss won 10 regular season games last year for the first time in history. In the two years before Kiffin, Ole Miss won nine games total.
Ole Miss is 7-0 for the first time since 1962 when it went 10-0, counting a Sugar Bowl win, and won the SEC and the national championship, according to some off Broadway polling sites. The 2014 team was 7-0, but that was taken away by NCAA penalties. Ole Miss is excellent in a consecutive season, which has not happened much since Johnny Vaught’s salad days in the 1950s and ’60s.
Kiffin admires how loud Tiger Stadium can be, but everybody says that. He also praised the fans’ timing.
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“Their fans are into it. They’re there early. Very passionate,” he said.
Kiffin doesn’t mind taking shots at his own fans, who did not show in droves for the home game against Tulsa this season. That comment above might have been a veiled one directed at Ole Miss fans.
“Really loud, extremely well educated on when to cheer, I know that,” Kiffin said of LSU’s fans. He was on the field at Tiger Stadium as Alabama’s offensive coordinator in 2014 when the Tide won 20-13 in overtime and a 10-0 win in 2016.
“Their crowd understands football and is into it as much as any place you go,” he said.
Hmm. Is he saying Ole Miss fans do not?
Kiffin was asked what he thought of LSU’s 45-35 win at Florida last week, which was the Tigers’ best overall game this season. Quarterback Jayden Daniels threw for three touchdowns and 349 yards and ran for three touchdowns.
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“I thought LSU played like you would’ve expected them to play all year long,” he said, which may have also had a double meaning.
Does Kiffin think Kelly got them playing well a little later than maybe he would have?
“Really special players and great playmaking ability,” he went on. “Continued to make third downs and do a great job in the running game and especially in the passing game.”
And he said it again: “Which I thought would’ve been the case all along, so they must be hitting their stride.”
Woodward viewed Kiffin as bit of a wild child, which may still have some truth. But that is getting to be an old story as he had an immature streak as the Oakland Raiders head coach at age 32, Tennessee at 34 and later at USC and as Alabama’s offensive coordinator. He was fired from the Raiders and USC, and asked to leave a week or so early by Alabama coach Nick Saban during the 2016 postseason.
Considering some of the alleged behavior by Orgeron as LSU’s coach and that of his predecessor, Les Miles, who are LSU people to judge? True, Woodward didn’t hire those two, but he did hire Jimbo Fisher to Texas A&M from Florida State, where he let quarterback Jameis Winston continue playing despite sexual assault charges.
So, in other words, give me a break. Kiffin, 47, and a rising force for major college and NFL jobs, should have been strongly considered by Woodward for the LSU job last year. If not the best offensive mind in college football, he is close to it, and is better than most in the NFL. He could have been the first true offensive coordinator hire to the head coaching job at LSU.
Instead, Woodward went with the safer, more experienced and more of a blockbuster hire — but not by much — in Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly, 61. He has never had great, progressive offenses. But he has had good ones, and he is a proven winner at small, medium and large programs. He could end up winning multiple national titles at LSU, particularly if Miles and Orgeron won one apiece.
After disposing of Florida’s Billy Napier, who was seen by media as a candidate for the LSU job last year, Kelly now faces the best of the 2021 would-be LSU coaching candidates in Kiffin.
Ole Miss’s offense is not quite Tennessee caliber, but it is close and more balanced.
The two programs that rank higher nationally than Ole Miss in rush offense (3rd with 271 yards a game) are not close to how high Ole Miss is in total offense (14th with 504 yards a game). Air Force and Army are Nos. 1 and 2 in the nation in rush offense, but they are No. 39 and No. 55 in total offense. Those Ole Miss numbers take discipline and talent, which Kiffin has, and his team shows it.
Unlike his reputation that precedes him, he is not some pass-happy stat seeker.
“It’s an offense that is systematic in its play calling,” Kelly said. “What they’re trying to do, the pieces fall together quite nicely. And very talented. He’s a creative coach offensively, and they always have been cutting edge in terms of what they do. There is always an answer to what you do in-game as well. He’s going to really dial in on you if there is anything that you do (weakly). You’ve got to be very good at your self-scout.”
Look for Kiffin to get his offense to the line quickly and snap it right away as Tennessee did. Frequently, LSU’s defense was not even set in the 40-13 loss to the Vols two weeks ago. Defensive coordinator Matt House better be on his game. He wasn’t against Tennessee.
Ole Miss has the capability to run all day or to throw all day as USC transfer quarterback Jaxson Dart is improving.
This could be a game where one person on the Ole Miss side and many on the LSU side leave wondering what might have been.