Kiffin Has Alabama No. 1 to Copy
Leading up to the Florida game last month, Lane Kiffin paid mighty tribute to
the No. 1-ranked Gators. He posed the possibility that Florida had both the best
defense and the best quarterback ever to play college football. He said Tennessee needed to recruit more
speed-burners like Florida has.
While he was entirely sincere then, this week’s No. 1-ranked opponent is
the program Kiffin most admires.
“It’s truly a model for the direction we’re going,” he said Tuesday.
He was speaking of Alabama, of course.
Florida is the team UT has to beat to get to the SEC championship game.
Georgia is the border rival UT has to beat for recruiting advantages.
Alabama, that’s the rivalry with deep roots that Kiffin heard about
during the barnstorming, meet-and-greet phase of his first year at Tennessee.
But Kiffin didn’t require a heads up from passionate Big Orange fans. When
it comes to the Crimson Tide, he was already in the know.
What Nick Saban has wrought over 33 months in Tuscaloosa is an outline
for what Kiffin wants to realize in Knoxville. Recruit great players. Instill
discipline. Play a power, pro-style game. Compete for championships. “I love the
style they play and what they do,” Kiffin said. “They come at you and don’t
try to trick you. They’re very physical on both sides of the ball. They play
more like NFL teams do. “Florida is completely different.” Not that there’s
anything wrong with Florida’s approach. Duh! The Gators have won two of the past
three national championships and might well add another come January. “There are
different ways to do things,” said Kiffin. “Florida is a great program with a
lot of success.” Yet Alabama’s way appeals to Kiffin. Why? Look to the common
denominator between Kiffin and Saban. Saban was an assistant with one NFL team
(Oilers), a defensive coordinator for another (Browns)
and, finally, the head coach of the Miami Dolphins for two seasons.
Kiffin grew up watching his dad Monte coach in the NFL, then got his first head-coaching shot with the Oakland Raiders.
While both experienced more success in college coaching than the NFL, they hang their helmet
on the traditional trappings of the game as it’s played at the highest level.
This isn’t to portray the two as peas in a pod, nor as equals.
Saban is 57 with an extensive track record of success at various stops.
He was coaching at Kent State when Kiffin, 34, was born.
Kiffin is still getting established as a program builder. If he were able
to emulate Saban’s rapid recovery pace at Alabama, UT fans would be bonkers.
But it’s not likely and the realistic among the masses understand that.
Kiffin’s first season is, thus far, akin to Saban’s. Saban inherited a
6-7 team and finished 7-6. Kiffin inherited a 5-7 team and won’t finish far
from 7-6, one way or the other.
Year Two is where the paths will diverge.
Saban’s 2008 Alabama team was 12-0 before losing to Florida in the SEC
championship game. Year Two for Kiffin? Sorry, but 12-0 isn’t in the tea leaves
no matter how hard you shake the cup.
Tennessee’s rebuilding will take longer. Kiffin said earlier this year a
new regime needs to be up and rolling by the third year.
He’s out of the gate well in recruiting. His first class ranked 10th and
the one he’s working on is rated No. 6 by Rivals.com. (Alabama had back-to-back
No. 1 classes in 2008 and 2009).
His team has exhibited discipline on and off the field. Penalties have
been few, arrests non-existent.
From the first hour of practice, being physical has been demanded. For
three or so hours on Saturday, it will be vital to survival.
Big, bruising Alabama is a 16-point favorite. If form holds, the Tide
would brandish its first three-game win streak over the Vols since 1990-92.
The streak is at two, coinciding with Saban’s arrival. The margin of
those wins is a combined 44 points.
“We need to make this thing competitive again,” said Kiffin.
Until the Vols do, Alabama remains a worthy role model. This fierce old
rivalry will be better served when both teams are peers.