Lane Kiffin will lead the Ole Miss Rebels on the field in 2020. The Matt Luke Era is officially over and the Lane Train Era has ignited a dormant fanbase that has been dying for something to be excited about for years. Sure the hire is risky and sure the new head coach has his demons, but new athletic director Keith Carter had to take this risk, right?
It was the perfect move for the University of Mississippi.
FAU didn’t need to win the Conference USA title game last Saturday against UAB, but they did. And they did it emphatically, announcing Kiffin’s return to the SEC and letting everyone know he ain’t dead yet.
So if you aren’t convinced this is a good thing for Ole Miss, that’s cool, everyone is entitled to their opinion. But can we at least try to convince you? We can? Okay, here it goes.
The fan base was completely checked out. Until now.
The months and weeks and days prior to December 7th, 2019 were filled with anger, anxiety, angst, and apathy. All the a-words that pertain to emotion. Matt Luke, albeit we all wanted him to succeed and be the Cinderella story of the ages in Oxford, was just not getting it done and it was becoming more and more obvious that he was also bad for business.
Season ticket sale numbers were plummeting. Attendance was in the shitter. And a once proud alumni association that boasted a pretty damn good “road show” when they were on their way to see the Rebels play was locked up and covered up in the proverbial garage.
Then turn the page to last Saturday after the Owls won the C-USA title, improving their season record to 10-3, and Ole Miss fans were all of a sudden locked in and on the edge of their seats.
This was no accident. Kiffin is as polarizing and exciting as they come. The explosive offense, the NFL pedigree, and the Joey Freshwater pseudonym all makes for a perfect SEC West coaching cocktail that is sure to drive Nick Saban, Gus Malzahn, Ed Orgeron, and Jimbo Fisher up a wall.
God love him.
He’s our wacky, lovable college football dad now. Buckle up.
His offense matches the personnel.
This is the most important piece to the hire.
Kiffin inherits an incredibly talented group of rising sophomores that saw massive numbers on the ground in 2019, but hardly threw the ball. John Rhys Plumee (let’s not beat around the bush) cannot throw the football effectively, but is not entirely at fault for the inefficiency in the passing game. An offense that did not have a 300-yard passer in a single game, or 1,500-yard passer on the season, falls on the game plan and the man behind it.
Rich Rodriguez, who is considered one of the top evolutionary minds in college football history after he helped bring the speed-option offense to the top of the game, brought a lot of hope for a new vision at Ole Miss after Phil Longo’s catastrophic waste of NFL talent. Though the run game put up record-breaking numbers in 2019, play calling was stagnant, meaningful drives were few-and-far between and late opportunities to take the lead were squandered. The results speak for themselves.
As arguably the most athletic class to play in Oxford enters its second year, a new leader takes the reigns. An offensive mind in his own right, Kiffin will call the plays as head coach, and has shown at his previous stops that he will open the playbook past a base core. He will make adjustments, stick to what is working, and get a little creative.
While this may seem like common sense, it has been lacking at Ole Miss for the last few years, and in many cases, a coach will stick to his script far too long. Kiffin is willing to throw out everything he prepared, and find a new angle to win games, in games. And he isn’t afraid to be bold in the process.
Beyond his decision making, the system fits the bill. Kiffin began the high-responsibility portion of his career as the offensive coordinator at Southern California, under Pete Carroll. That year he called what is considered the best offense in history, which averaged 579 yards per game, with two 1,000 yard rushers, a 3,000 yard passer and a 1,000 yard receiver.
Reggie Bush is the best college football player of all-time, went on to win the Heisman that season, and cannot be compared. However, size discrepancy aside, Jerrion Ealy has shown moments of Bush-esque explosiveness, shiftiness and speed.
At Southern California, LenDale White was the thunder to Bush’s lightning. At Ole Miss, Snoop Conner plays that role next to Ealy. Conner too is smaller in stature to White, but the bowling-ball downfield runner nature of the two could prove a a brilliant marriage for a coach willing to shuffle the personnel based on packages.
When Kiffin returned to Los Angeles in 2010, he took over a program in limbo after NCAA sanctions (something all too familiar to Rebel nation), but won 18 games in his first two seasons. His offense was led by Matt Barkley, a young and talented quarterback who Kiffin helped mentor into successful collegiate career.
In 2011, Barkley set the USC single-game record for completions, passed for a USC single-game record 468 yards, accumulated an all-time Pac-12 record 39 touchdowns, helped end the season with a 10–2 record and finished with a 39–7 touchdown-to-interception ratio while completing 69.1% of his passes. Nice.
In a 50-0 shutout over a bad UCLA team, Kiffin compiled the most successful simple concepts from the team’s 10-win season, and let Barkley sling it.
Unlike his time with Barkley, who was the sure-fire starter, Kiffin inherits a team in a time of confusion at quarterback. Plumlee started the majority of 2019 as a run-first scrambler, Matt Corral entered the year as the starter and played a complicated passing-down role, and Grant Tisdale returns in 2020 as possibly the most complete package after he entered the transfer portal last season.
Kiffin has stated that no-stars, or five-stars, each player on the roster begins the off-season with a clean slate going forward. To begin to speculate which quarterback(s) will get time behind center is something that isn’t necessary until spring ball. No matter who gets the final nod, Kiffin has shown willing to develop his thinking, and mold his playbook to get the best athlete on the field in a position to succeed.
After his time ended abruptly at Southern California, Kiffin became the offensive coordinator at Alabama. Wins and numbers (which were substantial) aside, the most profound note was his ability to evolve. When Nick Saban hired Kiffin, the goal was to revamp an offense that had been power-first, and tried to get the nation’s top defense back on the field to hold a lead. The SEC was changing, and Saban took notice. The only problem was, the players on the roster did not cater to Kiffin’s spread approach.
As a result, Kiffin had Blake Sims, a former back-up running back, at quarterback in his first year. He took that team to a national championship. To draw comparison, Plumlee is virtually a starting running back, who plays quarterback. Just saying.
The next season at Alabama, Jake Coker took over for Sims. In his one season as the starter, Coker averaged 207.33 yards per game and won the national championship. Corral easily eclipsed that number in three of his four starts.
During Kiffin’s final season with the Tide, he had his most successful quarterback in Jalen Hurts, and he increased the tempo in his offense and opened it up for more RPOs and draw plays. Alabama went back to the national championship.
The sample size is not large enough to draw comparison to Tisdale, but let’s do it anyway. Both Hurts and Tisdale are duel-threat quarterbacks; the former likely the faster of the two, but the latter likely the better arm. In their senior high school seasons, each accounted for 45+ touchdowns at least 2,000 yards passing, and 1,000 yards rushing. Tisdale might just be the best all-around player in the quarterback room, and Kiffin may see that.
The bottom line is this, whomever gets the starting nod behind center will have a guru that has worked with quarterbacks good, bad, fast and slow to mentor him, and a head coach who is willing to alter his system to fit the player in it. That’s hard to come by.
After Kiffin left for Florida Atlantic, the success of his quarterbacks did not subside, but his running backs took the forefront, as current Buffalo Bill rookie Devin Singletary lead the nation in rushing touchdowns. His running backs coach in Boca Raton and former Detroit Lion Kevin Smith will also coach Ealy and Conner at Ole Miss.
Positional play is one thing, but the creativity showcased with the Owls is something that is crucial to the success of an offense. Don’t shy away from the unconventional, and take risks.
Kiffin has a lot of weapons at his disposal, including a group of talented wide receivers that didn’t see the light of day in 2019, and he has shown he will get the best players on the field. The 44-year-old has made a lot of stops in his career and coached the game alongside the two best coaches of this century, as well as tempo-pushers like Kendal Briles. When Kiffin brings his system, and the lessons he has learned along the way to a young Ole Miss team full of athletes... hoooooooooooo boy.
Get players in space, confuse defenses, make plays.
Recruiting is about to be nuts.
Although his staff is not completely rounded-out yet, Kiffin is known to be a tenacious recruiter who knows how to big-game hunt. The Rebels’ newest head coach was already breaking down tape of recruits on the plane ride from Boca Raton to the Velvet Ditch and after wrapping things up at the Pavilion, he was back at it with his current staff, working through the rankings and sifting through targets.
Like I said, the staff isn’t complete so we can’t really speak to their ability as a whole to recruit, but one thing is for sure, Kiffin is a respected name that carries weight on the recruiting trail.
ESPN’s Chris Low came to Oxford and followed the new Ole Miss coach around and he seems to think it’ll be a seamless transition for the former FAU head man. In this excerpt, you can see that his presence is already being felt in the 2020 class and recruits are coming to him. Literally.
Not even an hour after Kiffin arrives on campus, a recruit and his parents stop by wanting to meet him. Told a little bit later by player personnel director Tyler Siskey that another recruit wants to come by the next morning at 6:30 to meet Kiffin, he chortles, “Damn, 6:30, those are Saban hours. Let’s do it.”
Kiffin is back at the Manning Center bright and early on Monday morning. His meeting with one of the top high school prospects in the state is followed by his first staff meeting. Already, Kiffin has informed some coaches on the previous staff that they won’t be retained, and they’re not in the meeting.
One thing is certain, whoever Kiffin rounds out this staff with, whether that be Alabama’s Karl Scott, UCF’s Jeff Lebby, the Detroit Lions’ Bo Davis, or even Nick Saban’s right-hand man, Scott Cochran, this staff will be aggressive, calculated, and ruthless on the recruiting trail going after any and everyone.
The dude is a proven winner, flaws aside.
We all know about the Joey Freshwater tall tales and the tarmac jokes and Nick Saban has yelled at him on live television several times.
Despite all that, he sits as 61-34 overall as a head coach, has been on staff for three national championships, 11 conference titles, and has been a head coach in the NFL all before his 45th birthday. He won 10 games in Los Angeles despite NCAA sanctions, transformed two quarterbacks while in Tuscaloosa, leading to a CFP semifinal appearance and a national title, and turned around a FAU program that won three games for three straight years into 26 wins in three seasons.
If we rewind to 2009, he won seven games at Tennessee with Jonathan Crompton at quarterback.
(I’ll give you time to Google him)
He was a Terrence Cody block away from upsetting No. 1 Alabama on the road, lost by 10 to Urban Meyer’s top-ranked Florida on the road, and lost by four to undefeated Auburn. That same year, Kiffin and Tennessee whipped Georgia 45-19 and beat top-25 South Carolina by 17. All with a terrible roster from Phillip Fulmer’s last years in Knoxville.
He’s coached two Heisman trophy-winning running backs, Biletnikoff Award-winning receivers, and revolutionized FAU’s Harrison Bryant’s game, leading to a Mackey Award finalist selection.
Regardless, it’s going to be fun.
If you aren’t following him on Twitter then what are you even doing right now? He is charismatic, quick on the draw when quipping back with a one-liner, and will be the best trolling head coach in college football.
His antics won’t be the only thing that’s fun. His offenses are going to be innovative, creative, and high-flying. Kiffin is going to bring a ton of swagger to the offensive side of the football and, as it has at all his other stops, it will rub off on the rest of the players, staff, and program.
The opener against Baylor in Houston is all of a sudden must-see television now and I think you’re not going to see many 11am kickoffs in 2020 because the Ole Miss head coach is going to demand prime time eyeballs.
Aaron Suttles of The Athletic wrote a column about the hiring of Kiffin and seems to think that he will be on a revenge tour of sorts, defeating anyone who wronged him or thought he was washed-up. He has talked at length about how he not only spent his three years in Conference USA winning two conference titles, 26 games, and rebuilding his image, but also studying his future opponents now peers. If anything, Kiffin is going to be cold-blooded in Oxford. And by God, it’s about time.
Ole Miss got their swagger back.