NCAA Football

If it’s Lane Kiffin’s call, expect the unexpected with Auburn and Ole Miss

If it’s Lane Kiffin’s call, expect the unexpected with Auburn and Ole Miss

Fluent tongue and easy smile Lane Kiffin flashed by on Saturday night and again Monday did not slow the anxious heartbeat in Oxford or Auburn.

The Ole Miss coach is a hot commodity, even after losing three of his last four and the latest in a demoralizing blowout in sub-zero temperatures at unranked Arkansas. Auburn continues to list him as its No. 1 priority in its head coaching search, industry sources tell 247Sports, and the clock is ticking down to the final week of the regular season.

Kiffin has twice confirmed his happiness in Oxford and joked about his Auburn candidacy, but has yet to offer a verbal commitment to the Rebels, who reportedly offered him a new contract last week. The latest humorous soundbite on Monday came from a former Ole Miss coach Tommy Tubervillewho infamously said he would only leave Oxford in a ‘pine box’ in 1998. Forty-eight hours later, Tuberville marched on Auburn.

I am extremely happy here. It’s a difference compared to this program three years ago, and we feel like we have really good support,” Kiffin said Monday. “I can get up here and give a speech and (Nick Saban‘s) ‘I’m not going to be the next Alabama head coach.’ I can give you these things. I don’t know what they mean. I’ve been here for three years and I’ve been lucky enough to have three different contracts. I don’t know why a the fourth contract makes people feel better. Like I said, we really appreciate everything here.”

After all, business is business. He knows better than to do anything in the uncertain world of the coaching merry-go-round. What he could do to appease the masses is face Ole Miss again, as did fellow Kentucky tight end Mark Stoops.

Instead, Kiffin makes jokes and makes everyone nervous. It’s certainly a business decision, especially if he can use Auburn as leverage to improve his deal at Ole Miss — and vice versa — but it’s no joke. Simply put, I don’t even like it Lane Kiffin can be in both directions.

“I don’t know stuff like that — No. 1,” Kiffin joked Saturday night after a 42-27 loss at Arkansas. “Maybe when [Auburn] watched the first half, then I wouldn’t have been No. 1.”

Auburn folks may have heard the Arkansas fans at Razorback Stadium chanting “Auburn” for Kiffin with less than 2 minutes left in the third quarter.

Kiffin’s comments have been picked up and interpreted in different ways on message boards, and you can imagine the overreaction, especially with Kiffin’s humor touching on such a serious topic as the health of two SEC football programs. Ole Miss players did not ask Kiffin about the rumors, nor did Kiffin reach out to the team about them. Only Kiffin knows what’s on his mind and whether he plans to open talks with Auburn after the Rebels host rival Mississippi State for Thanksgiving dinner.

Here’s what we know: Auburn is interested in Kiffin, and Ole Miss wants him to stay for a fourth season and beyond. There’s a lot to like about Kiffin, and in two years he’s quickly become a coach that many in the SEC want to emulate.

The Rebels are an incredible 18-6 over the past two seasons and are two wins away from posting a 10-win record for the first time in 62 years. The fact that Kiffin accomplished this in just three seasons is paramount in the age of the Transfer Portal. The fact that he did it at Ole Miss is key to why Auburn needs him. The eponymous “King of the Transfer Portal” expertly maneuvers through unknowns, departures, and NIL deals, scooping up top-tier quarterbacks, running backs, tight ends, and defensive playmakers from the portal. It’s that incredible portal success rate — the Class of 2022 that ranks No. 2 in the country — that has made it easy to emulate but difficult to replicate. Auburn just can’t afford to miss out on this hire, not with its talent level plummeting and at least 22 more players leaving this offseason, including the entire offensive line. The Tigers could be facing the biggest roster shakeup in college football in 2023, and this is a great opportunity for a coach to build a roster to his standards through the transfer portal.

There isn’t enough talent left at Auburn, although there are some superstars such as running backs Tank Bigsby and harkes hunter.. Thirty-one players left Auburn during Brian Harsin’s trolls 22-month tenure on the Plains. The roster as it stands is not the one that will go into the game in 2023. They need help. Not only do the Tigers need new bodies along the offensive line, they also need immediate help on the defensive line as well as a dynamic quarterback and a complete reboot at receiver to compete in the explosive SEC West.

With more departures sure to follow once the transfer portal opens on Dec. 5, Auburn’s next coach will need not only a success story on the portal, but a ready-to-implement plan created specifically for Auburn’s needs.

College football is no longer about a coach’s intuition, motivational speeches or good and bad habits. It’s a numbers game. Coaches want top-rated recruits and transfers in the offseason, and those with the most talented rosters are usually contenders for conference titles. On game days, coaches turn to analytics rather than intuition to guide decisions in crucial situations.

Kiffin does both.

He adapted and adopted the philosophies and made them pillars of his program as college football transformed through the 2020 recruiting rule changes. His foray into analytics is well-known and criticized, but largely successful (and loved by fans). The Rebels set an FBS record with 49 fourth down attempts in 2021 and won 10 games. Outside the field, the analyst determines the recruitment of his employees on the portal. Do I need a tight end with more value as a pass catcher on second-and-long or one with a better success rate as a blocking edge on second-and-3? Show the data and let it inform and drive the final decisions.

Kiffin is aggressive and unforgiving about this approach and is not afraid to break the rules.

“It is not easy. Like anything else, if it was easy, everyone would do it. I get it,” Kiffin said in May. “Many coaches don’t follow analytics because after the press conference or for that stadium to turn against you if it doesn’t work.”

Surely someone — perhaps only Kiffin — has crunched the numbers and weighed in on whether to be Auburn’s head coach in 2023 and the 2030s as well. Four of the last five head coaches won national titles, coached in the national title game or recorded an undefeated season. Only Harsin fell short in his 21 games on the sideline.

Ole Miss is one of four programs to never reach the SEC Championship since its inception in 1992. The Rebels last won the SEC title in 1963 and haven’t finished a season undefeated or in the national championship since 1962.

That’s not to say Ole Miss is incapable of greatness. Kiffin is doing things he’s never done before at Ole Miss, so maybe he’s just the coach to change the trajectory and put the Rebels at the top of the SEC. Loyalty should also be considered. Taking over the Rebels gave him a second chance as an SEC head coach after resuming his career as FAU’s head coach and Saban’s offensive coordinator at Alabama.

Kiffin will analyze the pros and cons — and, yes, which NIL team will best help lure players — but ultimately he’ll bet on himself if Auburn (or others) come calling. Where is the best for him to think about, and although this decision will be considered, many will call it strange. After all, he will continue to be as successful as the analytically guided calls he makes on fourth downs and in the gantry.

Brandon Marcello is a national football reporter for 247Sports. You can follow him on Twitter (@bmarcello).

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