Tennessee football's Josh Heupel is similar to Lane Kiffin in one notable way | Toppmeyer
Don’t worry, Vols fans.
Nothing indicates that USC is Josh Heupel’s dream job, that the Trojans are interested in Tennessee's coach or that he would bolt after one season.
That was Lane Kiffin’s move, of course. He dashed for La La Land after his lone season coaching Tennessee.
Kiffin, now in his second season at No. 14 Ole Miss (4-1, 1-1 SEC), will return to Neyland Stadium on Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network) to face Heupel’s Vols (4-2, 2-1), who have scored more than 40 points in back-to-back conference games.
Not since Kiffin coached UT has its offense been this electric under a first-year coach. The Vols went 7-6 in 2009 under Kiffin, scoring at least 30 points in each victory.
Tennessee has eclipsed 30 points five times this season. That’s already the best mark by a first-year UT coach since Kiffin.
The Vols reached 30 points four times in Derek Dooley’s first season in 2010, and again in Butch Jones’ first season in 2013. They only hit 30 points twice during Jeremy Pruitt’s inaugural season in 2018, a warning of the offensive woefulness that would become a hallmark of the Pruitt era.
The comparisons between Kiffin and Heupel don’t end at point totals.
They’re former college quarterbacks, although Heupel performed at a much higher level as a Heisman Trophy runner-up at Oklahoma.
Both coaches are known for quarterback development.
Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral is a favorite for the Heisman Trophy. He has thrown 12 touchdowns with no interceptions, and he has eight rushing touchdowns.
The only SEC quarterback with a better quarterback rating than Corral? That's Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker, a Virginia Tech transfer who has flourished after becoming the Vols’ starter in Week 3.
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Rebels offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby worked two seasons at Central Florida under Heupel, serving as Heupel's offensive coordinator in 2019 before joining Kiffin’s staff.
The Tennessee and Ole Miss offenses share similar styles and tempo.
Ole Miss is averaging 2.89 plays per minute of possession, compared to 2.87 for Tennessee. By comparison, UT averaged 2.36 plays per minute of possession last season.
“I think we’re the top two teams as far as plays per minute (of possession) in Power Five football,” Heupel said.
The Rebels lead the SEC in scoring. Tennessee ranks third.
Both systems spread the field and incorporate a heavy dose of run-pass option plays, in which the quarterback reads the defense and determines while the play unfolds whether to hand the ball off or make a play-action fake and throw.
“Their overall structure is similar," said Heupel, who went 2-0 against Kiffin while he coached UCF and Kiffin was Florida Atlantic's coach. "You’re trying to put people in conflict. You’re trying to play with tempo and use that as a weapon against the defense.”
Kiffin agreed that there are “a ton” of similarities between the two systems.
“The tempo aspect of it, how that's managed and practiced, how the receivers play positions and get the ball, all that stuff is the same,” Kiffin said.
Kiffin has returned to Neyland Stadium twice since his departure, both as Alabama’s offensive coordinator.
He is one of the most polarizing figures in East Tennessee
For some Tennessee fans, Kiffin remains persona non grata. For others, emotions have cooled in the nearly 12 years since Kiffin jilted the Vols.
A portion of Vols fans hoped UT would pursue Kiffin during the 2017 coaching search and again when the job opened in January.
Move past their similar offensive styles, and differences emerge between Kiffin and Heupel.
Kiffin’s quips and unfiltered nature draw constant media attention, and he’s mastered the Twitter Arts.
Two Saturdays ago, Kiffin became a punchline after he advised TV viewers to get their popcorn ready before Ole Miss’ game at Alabama. Then the Rebels got trounced. Kiffin embraced the joke by tweeting a couple of popcorn photos in the days that followed, and Ole Miss offered free popcorn to the first 5,000 fans who attended Saturday’s 52-51 victory over Arkansas.
Heupel is less likely to make headlines, and he fires off fewer tweets.
But both coaches pile up points at a warp-speed rate, which should make Saturday night worthy of some popcorn.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.