CECIL HURT: Lane Kiffin has come close but faces a different challenge on Saturday
Technically, Lane Kiffin isn’t on the list of former Nick Saban’s former assistants who have tried and failed against Saban on the field. The two have stood on opposite sidelines, but at the time Kiffin coached Tennessee he had not yet been on Saban’s staff
Even with that exception, Kiffin came close, as close as anyone unless you want to argue that Kirby Smart’s loss in the 2018 College Football Championship Game was close because it involved an overtime. Terrence Cody was a different sort of difference-maker, compared to Tua Tagovailoa, but he kept Kiffin’s Volunteers from a stunning win. By the time the rematch came around in 2010, Kiffin was back in California and didn’t get a second chance until now.
The question this time is whether there is enough firepower on the Ole Miss offense to overcome the Rebels' deficiencies on defense. Coaching matters, but so does personnel.
"First off, there's been 20 games where coaches knew him and they went 0-20,” Kiffin said on Wednesday. “What (Saban) does is very unique. It works for him. I don't think it works for many other people. He has it nailed. He's undefeated against 95% of coaches."
Having a “first off” implies a “second off,” and that one is more obvious: talent in uniform.
“Great players, great coaches,” Kiffin said. “Elite program. That's where we want to be someday. Good for our kids to see what it looks like. Go execute and see what can happen."
That’s a long-range statement with a great deal of recruiting success involved. This year, Ole Miss has a puncher’s chance at best because of Kiffin’s offensive acumen and a curse that Alabama has been less susceptible to in recent seasons: a talented quarterback. The Rebels have one in Matt Corral, the unexpected trivia answer to the question, “Who currently leads the SEC in quarterback rating?” Not Kyle Trask or Mac Jones, but Matt Corral
"He is one of the best (quarterbacks) in the country relative to pass efficiency," Saban said on Wednesday’s SEC teleconference. "He's a very good athlete who can extend plays, and also if you do get them covered can take off running it. And then he is also very efficient on the quarterback runs. Plus you’ve got to try to keep somebody back to play pass defense. So a combination of all those things, I think, make it very, very difficult when you play dual-threat guys who are really, really efficient in both parts of the dual threat, passing and running."
Is Corral really the next Manziel or DeShaun Watson or, to be more Kiffin-specific about it, the next Blake Sims? Meanwhile, the general consensus about the 2020 Alabama defense has been, “Well, yeah, they look a little better than last year,” but that’s a far cry from being “dominant.”
So there could be holes there, and Alabama will have to be careful not to be exploited in its weaker areas. The former Saban assistants may continue to have a zero on the scoreboard against their old boss, but it probably won’t be because the Rebels have zero on the scoreboard,
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @cecilhurt.