Saturday is a huge opportunity for Grownup Lane Kiffin. If there is such a thing.
At age 48, Grownup Lane is overdue to arrive. Offensive Prodigy Lane has been around a long time. Head Coach Lane has, too—14 years at five different stops. Instigator Lane has probably existed since shortly after birth.
Kiffin’s Mississippi Rebels play Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide on Saturday. This presents a chance for Kiffin to score the biggest victory of his head coaching career, taking an explosive team into Tuscaloosa for a shot at a vulnerable dynasty. Yeah, he beat No. 4 Oregon at USC in 2011, but this is Alabama and Saban. Houndstooth, 100,000 people, all those national championships … this is different.
Kiffin’s Rebels might be good enough to alter the course of the SEC West Division. Is he mature enough to lead them there?
Early returns raise doubts. As he so often does, Kiffin has spent part of this week dabbling in trolling and irritating. When asked a question Sunday about Alabama coordinator Kevin Steele’s defense, Kiffin asserted that it’s not really Steele’s defense.
“It seems like there’s been a change there,” Kiffin said. “I don’t know what happened after the Texas game. But, you know, our guys watching the TV copy, schematically in this last game, it certainly seems like T-Rob’s now calling the defense.”
“T-Rob” is cornerbacks coach Travaris Robinson. Kiffin, who coached with Steele at Alabama under Saban in 2014, aired a theory that Steele had been demoted a handful of games into his current tenure as defensive coordinator.
At his Monday press conference, Saban didn’t even wait for a media question about Kiffin’s verbal grenade before addressing it.
"On this other thing I hear floating around out there—I'm sure you've seen the same reports that I've seen—Kevin Steele is the defensive coordinator," Saban said. "He has all the defensive coordinator responsibilities. The only thing that we tried to improve on from an administrative standpoint, it was gameday administration of getting the signals in quicker, alright? That's the only thing that we worked on together as a staff. The whole staff made a contribution to it and I think it was a lot better in this game than it was in the Texas game."
Throwing in that “alright” and some accompanying hand gestures were enough to convince some longtime Sabanologists that he was annoyed about the topic. But Kiffin didn’t back off on the subject.
"I was asked the question what it was like going against Steele's defense," Kiffin said. "I wasn't really trying to start this big thing. We saw things on TV copy where it was different, first off with the playbook, the calls and stuff. We looked into that further. It ain't no secret: People in these buildings know each other. We got some information that way too.”
Oops, he did it again. “We got some information” from inside the Alabama football building? Kiffin was in full agitator mode … and then he dropped some of his famously passive-aggressive social media bombs.
Twice on Tuesday, Kiffin reposted on X (formerly Twitter) clips of Taylor Swift’s song, “Castles Crumbling.” One pertinent stanza:
Once, I had an empire in a golden age
I was held up so high, I used to be great
They used to cheer when they saw my face
Now I fear I have fallen from grace
And I feel like my castle's crumbling down
And I watch all my bridges burn to the ground
“Not a good song,” Kiffin wrote on X. “A great song!!!”
Anyone out there reading that and thinking … is he talking about Alabama? Why, yes, legions of people were thinking that’s exactly what Kiffin was referring to.
Then, just to keep everyone off-balance, Kiffin posted Wednesday his response to a question about what he is grateful for. His answer: “For Coach Saban taking a chance on me when I was knocked down and out. #ForeverGrateful @AlabamaFTBL."
To be clear, Kiffin has consistently expressed that gratitude to Saban and has consistently defended Saban every time someone theorizes that the king’s castle is, indeed, crumbling. But he also was fired by Saban in the middle of the 2016 College Football Playoff, between a semifinal victory over Washington and a championship defeat against Clemson. So let’s just say it’s a complicated relationship.
For Kiffin, his time trolling the Tide this week is just a continuation of his career-long penchant for tomfoolery. Ordering up a 76-yard field goal while coach of the Raiders while on his way to being fired 20 games into that tenure was a start. In his one season at Tennessee, Kiffin accused Florida’s Urban Meyer of cheating in recruiting, then walked it back—but not without drawing the ire of SEC commissioner Mike Slive. At USC, a Trojans manager was observed deflating footballs to less than regulation weight before playing Oregon. There was the mid-playoff firing at Alabama, presumably because he was more focused on becoming the head coach at Florida Atlantic than seeing things through with the Tide. And last year at Ole Miss, Kiffin’s name was linked to the Auburn job opening leading up to the Egg Bowl, wherein the favored Rebels lost to bitter rival Mississippi State.
Kiffin just can’t seem to resist stirring things up, often leading into big games. Is that an attempt to divert pressure from his players to himself? Or is there some element of self-sabotage that Kiffin carries with him into these settings?
The last time Mississippi played Alabama in Bryant-Denny, Kiffin signed off a pregame interview with CBS by declaring, “Get your popcorn ready,” then took off the headset and flipped it to the ground. It was a great mic drop moment— except then the Rebels had to play the game. They trailed 28-0 at halftime and 35-0 in the third quarter before a couple of late touchdowns reduced the final deficit to 21 points.
This time, Ole Miss should have a much better chance of not just being competitive, but winning. The Rebels have the better quarterback and the more productive running game. Their defense is a question mark, but so is Alabama’s offense, which has a simmering stew of dysfunction to date.
On the SEC teleconference Wednesday, Kiffin finally got around to sounding like a typical coach: lauding the opponent while moaning about his own team.
“Other than one linebacker (five-star Suntarine Perkins), they took their 85 players and we had to pick from the rest,” Kiffin said. “That tells you what kind of challenge it is.”
Asked if he has his best team in five seasons at Ole Miss, Kiffin said, “No, I don’t think so. We’ve still got a lot of question marks. We didn’t play well on defense last week. We have a lot of injuries on offense. … We’ve got a lot of issues.”
Grownup Lane would have stuck to that script all week. Grownup Lane would try just this once to tiptoe into a big spot instead of throwing shade. Grownup Lane would avoid the commentary on Saban’s staff, leave out the Taylor Swift posts and show up in Tuscaloosa without having provoked the Tide.
Yeah, no. But maybe Grownup Lane shows up on game day. At age 48, it’s time for that version of Lane Kiffin to make an appearance.