By Billy Watkins
On the opening day of SEC Media Days in Atlanta, Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin autographed a mustard bottle, didn’t wear a tie, learned that his team set a college football record for going for it on fourth down last season (49 times) and explained why he is so visible on social media — along with his dog, Juice, who has nearly 16,000 followers on Twitter.
Kiffin, whose 2021 team won 10 games in his second season in Oxford, offered some interesting nuggets during his time at the podium. If I had to choose a single takeaway about the 2022 Rebels, it’s that Kiffin believes there is talent on the roster but is concerned — and rightly so — about how quickly the pieces will fit together.
“On paper we may look like we should be decent because we filled a lot of holes with the transfer portal,” Kiffin said. “That is a good system when you lose really good players and you haven’t been somewhere long enough to develop a lot of classes of depth. So we are grateful for that.
“At the same time with everything good, there are challenges as well. You have people coming from different parenting, and we have to put them all together as this blended family.
“In fall camp, it won’t just be about teaching X’s and O’s, like it always is. We have a lot of culture work to do that you don’t usually have to do as much because it’s already established because your best players normally have been in your program for a year or two.”
And he doesn’t care for the perception that Ole Miss should sail into the Oct. 1 home game with Kentucky 4-0.
“Supposedly (the schedule is) easier up front,” Kiffin said. “You don’t know that. At the end of the year, you guys, us included, think these teams are going to be better than these. You don’t know.”
The first four opponents are Troy, Central Arkanas, (at) Georgia Tech and Tulsa.
And about that Kentucky game, which looks mighty pivotal sitting here in the smothering heat of mid-July: The Wildcats were 10-3 overall, 5-3 in the SEC last season.
“Coach (Mark) Stoops has done an unbelievable job at a place that isn’t traditionally winning 8, 9, 10 games,” Kiffin said. “I always think that’s really cool and special when someone can do that.”
“(Kentucky is) very good on defense, very complicated. I know they have really good success running the ball, are very creative offensively, especially with some NFL concepts involved.”
Once again, Kiffin proved he doesn’t mind saying what he thinks (except when it comes to who his starting quarterback might be, and he can hardly be blamed for that).
When asked whether teams will struggle as they move to other conferences — Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC, UCLA and USC to the Big Ten —Kiffin said:
“They’ve been playing in great conferences and against great opponents. I mean, I’ll just say how it is. I don’t know that there’s a huge jump to the Big Ten. I think going to the SEC is a whole ‘nother animal. I think the draft picks, national championships prove that … the coaches have to deal with it and get ready for a different world.”
Other highlights from Kiffin’s session:
*** He was asked about new offensive coordinator Charlie Weiss, Jr. and 6-foot-3, 240-pound tight end Michael Trigg, a sophomore who transferred from USC and made incredible catches in the Rebels’ spring game. “Michael Trigg is a very talented player,” he said. “Again, another young one that just finished his true freshman year. Had a really good spring game. Has done some good things. Has a really high ceiling.
“Charlie has been with us two places before. I’ve always thought he was way ahead of the game, not just because he started young with his dad but his mind is really unique and special. He can really memorize things like no other.”
*** He was asked about the “two big personalities” coaching in the state of Mississippi, and the questioner specified Kiffin and Jackson State’s Deion Sanders. He also asked Kiffin if Ole Miss would ever consider playing JSU.
Said Kiffin: “Well, we’ve got another personality in Mike Leach (at Mississippi State). I would say there’s three personalities in the state that are very unique and extremely different from each other.
“It’s nice to see Coach Sanders’ success, how well he’s done down there, how well he’s done in recruiting. I don’t know future plans on (scheduling), but that would be exciting.”
*** Kiffin talked about why he invests so much in social media, often posing with recruits in super expensive cars.
“Because I think for you guys that have been around me or listened to me, we don’t sit around and complain how things are and how they should be,” Kiffin said. “Ideally (a recruit) shouldn’t be picking places out of what your photo shoot is or what car they’re taking pictures in. There’s a lot of things I wish were different.
“We try to be creative. We kind of have a saying: We don’t think outside the box, we just create a new box. If that’s what kids care about and look at, we don’t do things the way they were done before. I think that’s how we would operate anywhere, but especially at Ole Miss you need to be that way to have a chance.
“Like the commissioner (Greg Sankey) … I didn’t wear a tie today. He’s like, ‘Man, I’ve always wanted to do that.’ I’m like, ‘Well, don’t just do things the way they were done before.’ So maybe the commissioner won’t have on a tie next year.”
*** On what rules need to be established now that NIL — players being paid for their name, image and likeness — Kiffin responded: “I think ideally, if we’re going to be in an NIL world, somehow you’re going to do it right. It’s going to get capped so that there is some way of controlling it and keeping playing fields close to the same.Otherwise, you’re just going to have these glaring differences within Division I football based off of what I’ve said before, their salary cap. I know it’s not really the right word.”
LSU COACH BRIAN KELLY
He won 92 games in 12 seasons at Notre Dame, 34 in four seasons at Cincinnati.
Now, as the new head coach at LSU, he’s in the eye of the Tiger in more ways than one. During his Q&A Monday at SEC Media Days, the 60-year-old Kelly was asked what makes him a good fit in Baton Rouge, especially given the land of grits and national championships is foreign to him.
“I think ‘fit’ is about the ability to run a program at the highest level. I’ve done it for 32 years,” Kelly said. “I’ve had success at Notre Dame, Cincinnati, Central Michigan, wherever I’ve been. So running a program and then player development, I think those are the most important things.
“I don’t think that needs to be geographical in a sense. I’ve gotten to love where I’m at in Baton Rouge. I love the people. They love football. They love family. They love food. That fits me really well. I guess I should have been in the South all along.”
But this LSU team isn’t projected to be in the national championship picture, for whatever projections are worth. The Tigers finished 6-7 overall and 3-6 in the SEC in Ed Orgeron’s final season as head coach.
Entering preseason camp, the Tigers are unsettled at quarterback and in the secondary, and that’s dangerous in the SEC. Kelly didn’t offer any promises, only that he believed in his ability to coach and the talent he saw on the field during spring.
Of course, his accent was mentioned after failing miserably last winter trying to sound like a good ol’ boy while addressing a basketball crowd.
“Understand now, I have a Boston, Midwestern, Louisiana accent now,” he said. “It’s three dialects into one. Just be ready.”