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Grading the SEC Carousel: Is Lane Kiffin ready for another SEC gig?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 30 Southern Miss at FAU Photo by Aaron Gilbert/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We’re grading the SEC hires this week. If you missed the backstory and our take on Missouri’s Eliah Drinkwitz, you can peep it here.

Today, we break down Ole Miss’ hire of that master of mayhem, the sultan of skank, the airport wunderkind, the self-deprecating offensive maestro that is Dreamy Lane Kiffin — or, if you’re still mad about the 2015 CFP Playoff loss to Ohio State, just LMFK. #RTDB

Lane Kiffin: Ole Miss via Florida Atlantic

To understand our grade of Lane Kiffin, I think you really have to look at his work at Alabama and then FAU to gauge the man that Kiffin became and not the man that he was.

You can be forgiven if you have mixed feelings about Lane Kiffin. Look, I understand.

He was brought in as one of Nick Saban’s more prominent reclamation projects in 2014 to revamp a Tide’s scheme that had grown stale and was out of touch in an increasingly-offensive world. The days of 31 sets and 38 points were simply not going to cut it. With a completely retooled offensive roster, it was as good a time as any to make the jump to the spread. And, what a fun year it was too. That season, the Tide finished 16th in total offense and increased its PPG output by almost a full touchdown. Fan favorite Blake Sims broke A.J. McCarron’s season totals for passing yards and touchdowns and led the Tide an improbable SEC Championship and an appearance in the inaugural College Football Playoffs.

Kiffin would bring some of the best talent to the Capstone that the school had ever seen, including Tua Tagovailoa and the versatile Jalen Hurts. Kiffin had the low-hangers to throw a true freshman out on the field against a Top 25 USC team. He built offenses suited to the quarterbacks he had on hand, and not necessarily the ones that he preferred.

Jake Coker’s slower delivery? Crossing routes and deep shots and lean on Derrick Henry.
Blake Sims athleticism and limited experience at the position? Play-action fakes and quick hitters while incorporating Blake’s legs. All of which he borrowed heavily from Gary Patterson’s air raid.
Jalen Hurts? A read-option power offense that would not have been out of place on those 2000’s Texas teams.

Kiffin won with them all. In his three years on campus, crafting essentially three different offenses, the Tide won three straight SEC titles, made three straight Playoff appearances, played for two national titles, won one, had the school’s first Biletnikoff award winner, and threw in a Heisman trophy-winning running back for good measure. Along the way, with three different offenses, the Tide O still neared 40 PPG in every season. And, we would be remiss if we didn’t single out his masterwork of playcalling, the 2016 CFP Championship. Lane Kiffin dialed up some of the most creative looks and plays the Crimson Tide has ever seen, using every tool in the shed to have Jake Coker and company outduel Deshaun Watson’s Tigers in a thriller.

Seriously, you won’t see a better coached game of offensive football than that, one that incorporated every single skills player and worked with their strengths.

CFP National Championship - Alabama v Clemson
COKER DEEP BALL!
Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

But, like the one you don’t take home to mother, Lanes lows were as exquisitely painful as the highs were intoxicating. As with every other stop on Lane’s journey, it ended poorly at Alabama. Fired after a year by Al Davis. Left the Vols in a lurch. Talked so much smack and was so sketchy with hostess programs that the SEC office warned the entire league as to the first and outright banned the latter. Fired on the tarmac at USC. Derailed a title run in 2014-2015 by refusing to run the ball.

And, then the 2016-2017 season came and it got bad. The rot set in at the edges. Lane had earned a second (third, four, fifth) chance. Of that, there is no question. Lane had said the right things, done the right things, brought in the right talent, worked very hard to get that chance. No one begrudges him that. But, Kiffin was very much distracted that season and could not overcome it either. His buyout was over and his mind was on his own future goals and his own career rather than in performing the task at hand. The offense simply was not right — he was not using all the knives in the drawer. A man that had made a career of working around weaknesses seemed to have lost the magic — 31 against FCS Chattanooga; 10 against LSU; 30 against a pedestrian Auburn team; 38 against Western Kentucky; 34 against Kentucky.*

Then, in the Playoffs, after Kiffin had been hired by FAU, and his mind was on assembling his staff and his own recruiting, he arguably cost Alabama an excellent shot at a national title. As good as his 2016 CFP Championship game was, the 2017 semifinal against Washington was bad. Flat, uninspired, very little coaching or emotion on the sideline. He simply failed to develop Jalen Hurts that season...worse, it often looked like wasn’t trying his best; not when his hand-picked guy, Blake Barnett, simply couldn’t get it done.

Following Alabama’s desultory victory over the Huskies, Kiffin and Saban mutually agreed that it was best for him to leave to focus on his new program.

It wasn’t the tarmac, but it wasn’t a great ending either. Despite that, aside from a poke at Nick Saban every now and again, Kiffin has been nothing but complimentary of Alabama: Praising all of his former players, and even reveling in the success of the program at times.

But, after a few seasons at FAU,running his own ship again, Kiffin’s record there is somewhat spotty after some questionable decisions...at least in terms of optics. Bringing in players with domestic violence incidents on their record. Hiring Kendal Briles at OC — despite his name being plastered all over Baylor’s half-decade of infamy. And the Tweets. Well, let’s just say that he didn’t completely abandon talking smack.

Nevertheless, he has won and won big. Kiffin inherited a 3-9 team and then went 8-0 in CUSA play, claiming the conference crown his first season with a collection of misfit toys, transfers, and the morally questionable. After a retooling 2018 campaign, he was back again this season, leading FAU to a CUSA title and a 10-win season. And, in his three-year stint, Lane’s largely kept his head down in Boca. There’ve been no scandals. No NCAA improprieties. No outrageous proclamations. No interpersonal drama.

They say that past results are the best predictor of future performance. So, you figure Ole Miss will win; the roster will grow more talented; the Rebels will be a tougher opponent; and we will all hold our breath to see if and when the other shoe drops. But, that shoe may never drop; he may become a portrait of stability in Oxford, even if it’s done selfishly: because the job Kiffin has very publicly been eyeing for the future is 160 miles away in Tuscaloosa.

Is Lane all grown up now? It appears so, or at least he has matured as a professional. Fun, versatile, talented, potentially distractable, and almost certain to end with bad feelings. That’s a trade most 2nd-tier teams would make, particularly getting up off the mat from NCAA sanctions. And for Ole Miss, that is a risk worth taking, and living with, for now. You could make a worse trade for 8-win seasons. Ask Texas A&M.

Yes, we fully acknowledge Jalen’s limitations as a passer.

Our Grade: B+/A-

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