Kiffin Has Alabama No. 1 to Copy

Mike Strange
Knoxville News-Sentinel

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.