Kiffin did decent work at USC – until he didn’t. Down 30 scholarships and barred from postseason, the 2011 Trojans went 10-2 and finished sixth in the final Associated Press poll. They were then voted No. 1 in preseason. They finished 7-6 and unranked. Included was a Sun Bowl loss to Georgia Tech.
After a 62-41 loss at Arizona State on Sept. 28, 2013, Kiffin was famously fired on the tarmac at LAX. (Famously, but perhaps inaccurately. Per ESPN, witnesses insist it was in a small building off the tarmac.) He was 38. He’d been fired twice. In the span of 12 months, he’d ticked off the entire SEC, Tennessee included. He was deemed both a bad coach and a bad guy.
He wound up in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (From a song of some renown: “When you ain’t got nothing/You got nothing to lose.”) He and Nick Saban made the world’s oddest match, but the great head coach burnished his legend by winning a national championship with Eddie Haskell as his OC.
As with all things Kiffin, their parting was jagged: He’d agreed to become FAU’s head coach but stayed with Bama through a halting CFP semi against Washington. Labeling him as both distracted and a distraction, Saban told Kiffin to hasten down the wind, perhaps in different words. With Sarkisian calling plays, Bama lost to Clemson.
Seven years later, Kiffin has proved to his many, many doubters – yours truly was an early member of that club – that he can coach a bit. Over three seasons at FAU and three-plus at Ole Miss, his record is 57-27. His Rebels are ranked No. 9 by the College Football Playoff committee, their lone loss at Bama in a game they led at halftime. Come Saturday night, they’ll face Georgia, which stopped losing a while back.
The Bulldogs are coached by Kirby Smart, the DC to Kiffin’s OC for two years with Alabama. Smart’s long and meritorious Tuscaloosa tenure stamped him as the sport’s next great coach, which he has indeed become. The same town – even though he described his time there in “dog years,” three being 21 – was the place where little lost Lane began to grow up.
For Georgia, Saturday marks the third rung on its Florida-Missouri-Mississippi-Tennessee ladder. As daunting as a day in Neyland Stadium can be, Ole Miss between the hedges stands as the bigger hurdle. It’s the sort of game a Kiffin team never seemed apt to grace. It’s the biggest game of his eventful life.
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