Analyzing Lane Kiffin's move to Alabama, what's next at Vandy, more

Wednesday January 15th, 2014

Lane Kiffin's tenure at USC was a train wreck. What will his time be like under Nick Saban at Alabama?
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The Stewart Mandel Podcast
Stewart and George Schroeder of USA Today recount their favorite memories from the 2013 season and relive the Auburn-Florida State national championship game.

You know how certain conspiracy theorists believe David Stern fixed the 1985 NBA lottery? Or how Big 12 fans believe the conference's officials work in concert with Texas? When word first started circulating that Nick Saban was seriously considering hiring Lane Kiffin as his offensive coordinator, I began to question whether Alabama-centric radio host Paul Finebaum was secretly calling the shots in college football.

One thing can be said in favor of Lane Kiffin -- he knows how to land plum coaching jobs. The guy's not even 40 yet but has a résumé that most retired coaches would dream to call their own. How does he go from getting fired at the airport by USC to landing at Alabama a few months later? He never struck me as an offensive innovator, and the Tide don't need anymore help on the recruiting front, so what is Saban buying?
-- Michael Kurtz, Roseburg, Ore.

The massive disconnect between the public perception of Kiffin and the opinions of those that know him have long fascinated me. He's always been sharp, pleasant and at times humorous in the various one-and-one conversations I've had with him, yet he's college football's undisputed public enemy, a first-class jerk in the minds of many (including SEC commissioner Mike Slive). But pleasant interactions or not, I hold the same opinion as everyone else in regards to his tenure as USC's head coach. Save for the second half of the 2011 season, it was a train wreck. But I'm merely a writer of college football, not someone inside the profession, and clearly coaches and athletic directors that have a chance to sit down with Kiffin are enamored with his football mind.

With some of Kiffin's former employers -- the late Al Davis, former Tennessee AD Mike Hamilton and former USC AD Mike Garrett -- you might have questioned their judgment on more than just his hire. Outside of a regrettable decision to attempt a 57-yard field goal, you wouldn't say that of four-time BCS champion Saban. If he thinks Kiffin is the right guy to lead his offense than he genuinely believes he's a bright offensive coach. Mind you, Kiffin has had his share of success, most notably in his one season at Tennessee, where he helped turn Jonathan Crompton from a dreadful quarterback into a fifth-round draft pick. He was a play-caller for one of the sport's most celebrated offenses in 2005 at USC and had spurts of success with Matt Barkley, Robert Woods and Marqise Lee. He certainly shares Saban's pro-style, run-first, play-action philosophy, and Saban is presumably a fan of Kiffin's various wrinkles.

At Alabama, Kiffin will need to develop a new starting quarterback in 2014, but he'll also have the luxury of utilizing such weapons as running backs T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry, receivers Amari Cooper and Christion Jones, and tight end O.J. Howard. Hopefully Kiffin's repertoire this time includes more than bubble screens.

RICKMAN: Alabama's No. 2 in the Way-Too-Early Top 25

Stewart, channel your inner-Lane Kiffin: The Alabama OC job is your springboard to your next head coach position. Is your plan to let your negative reputation simmer for a year or two and then take the next attractive opening, or are you hoping to stay put under Saban long enough to be in prime position to take over at Alabama when he retires?
-- Steve, San Diego

I doubt either Saban or Kiffin has seriously entertained the latter possibility. Kiffin's primary goal right now should be to resuscitate his career and salvage his reputation, and he's found the perfect place to do it. As Saban told on Monday: "All his issues come from something we're not asking him to do." There will be no scrum of microphones and cameras awaiting Kiffin when he comes off the practice field like there were in L.A. because Saban does not allow his assistants to talk to the media during the season. There will be no macro management decisions to make because it's Saban's program, not Kiffin's. The offensive coordinator can hole up in his office and watch film all week, which is exactly how Kiffin prefers it.

I'd be surprised if this ends up being a long-term marriage, even if Kiffin is successful. I still believe his natural landing spot is the NFL, but there might not have been takers coming off the USC debacle. Some distance will help with that. He could also get another college head coaching job. Saban's last two offensive coordinators -- Jim McElwain and Doug Nussmeier -- worked in relative anonymity. But with Kiffin, I have no doubt he will get the requisite praise or blame for the Crimson Tide's offensive performance.

How about a question from a Vanderbilt fan (we exist!). First off, I have nothing but great feelings and thanks to James Franklin; we were lucky to have him as our coach, and I'll always root for him in the future (unless he ever goes to Tennessee, of course). With a quality roster coming back, sparkling new facilities, and proof that we're not doomed to be 2-10 every year, how desirable is the Vanderbilt job? Has that changed a lot or at all from before Franklin's run?
-- Kris, Washington D.C.

Absolutely. Vanderbilt was seen as a graveyard job for years. If you recall, before Franklin, the school first offered the job to then-Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn in December 2010 for a reported $3 million per year. That's pennies in today's SEC, but at the time it seemed extraordinary for Vanderbilt. Yet Malzahn opted to pass on the job and remain an offensive coordinator at less than half that salary and wait on a better opportunity (which, a year later, turned out to be Arkansas State) rather than potentially commit career suicide. But hey, it all worked out for everyone involved.

Franklin showed you can win and go to bowl games at Vandy. The Commodores are still a long way from reaching the SEC championship game, which still seems like a pipe dream unless Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Missouri all simultaneously collapse, but you're not doomed to go 2-10 and get fired after four years. The bigger question for Vanderbilt is whether it can ever turn itself into a destination job. AD David Williams sure tried to keep Franklin, reportedly offering a huge raise to try to compete with Penn State. The school has already made substantial facility upgrades. But still, it couldn't sell out its modest 39,000-seat stadium for SEC games, which frustrated Franklin. It got passed over twice by one of the conference's New Year's Day bowls (Gator) for teams with the same record. There's a ceiling with which any coach there will have to contend, and thus, while it is certainly a better job than before, it will likely remain a springboard job.

MANDEL: James Franklin will find success as Penn State's coach

Stewart, I was astonished to learn that of the Heisman-winning QBs of the past 26 years, the only one to win an NFL playoff game was Tim Tebow. Have you ever heard of such a seemingly wrongheaded and impossible-to-be true statistic?
-- Bart Prorok, Auburn

I was astonished, too, but then I looked at the list of other winners during that span, which includes an NBA point guard (Charlie Ward), an option quarterback (Eric Crouch), a 53-year-old (Chris Weinke), a guy with no knees (Jason White), a guy that got drafted by the Bengals (Carson Palmer) and Gino Torretta. Somewhere, Johnny Manziel just cringed.

Hey Stewart: How do schools in the South, particularly the SEC, have sudden win-loss turnarounds from one year to the next? Look no farther than Auburn which went from 3-9 in 2012 to nearly winning the BCS this year. You can't tell me it's about the talent or getting a great coach that does it as other schools in other conferences struggle and don't turn their seasons around in such dramatic fashion as Auburn. Is it PEDs, oversigning, practicing beyond NCAA limits or other nefarious acts? I just can't believe it's all above board.
-- Joseph, Kilauea, Hawaii

I'm a little puzzled by the insinuation that big one-year turnarounds only take place in the South. For one thing, Auburn's nine-win improvement this season tied the FBS record previously held by ... Hawaii. Meanwhile, to what nefarious acts should we ascribe Michigan State's jump from 7-6 to 13-1 this year?

To me, the Tigers' turnaround showed that the SEC has become a lot like the NFL in terms of parity. In the NFL, in any given year, there are probably four teams that are head-and-shoulders above the rest of the league and four that have no hope from the get go. Everyone else basically starts 8-8 and deviates a few wins or losses from there based on injuries, turnovers, a poor third-and-8 call in Week 13, etc. In the SEC, you've got Alabama on the high end, recruiting No. 1 classes every year, and Kentucky on the other. But LSU, Georgia, Florida, Auburn, South Carolina and Tennessee (with the right coach) are all recruiting roughly the same level of talent over a four- to five-year period. From there, it's a matter of which ones have an experienced quarterback, or a particularly good group of seniors, or lost too many transfers/NFL defections, as to who finishes where in a given year. Auburn signed four straight Top 10 classes from 2010-13, per Similarly, Florida signed three Top 5 classes and one No. 12 class during the same span. In theory, they are similarly talented teams. In 2012, one (Florida) went 11-2, the other (Auburn) 3-9. A year later one (Auburn) went 12-2, the other (Florida) 4-8. Sometimes the difference is thinner than it looks in the W-L column.

STAPLES: One miracle short: Auburn's turnaround under Gus Malzahn

Even after UCF's incredible season, George O'Leary carries too much baggage to get a bigger job.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

With Bobby Petrino headed to Louisville, I have to ask: Why isn't there more interest in George O'Leary from programs in larger, more established conferences? I'm not saying Texas, but perhaps a place like Mississippi State or Kentucky would give him a shot if they were looking for a coach.
-- James, Atlanta

In light of Louisville hiring Bobby Petrino I'm not sure any coach is off-limits anymore (unless he lies to the NCAA, in which case he might as well become a Wal-Mart greeter), but O'Leary has quite a few strikes against him. And I'm not even talking about the Notre Dame résumé thing, which is ancient history. In 2011 a jury found UCF negligent in the death of Ereck Plancher, a player who collapsed and died following one of O'Leary's workouts. The family alleged O'Leary cursed at the player shortly before he collapsed. In 2012 the NCAA hit UCF with lack of institutional control and O'Leary's program with a bowl ban (later successfully appealed) for recruiting violations. The school stuck by him, and he delivered a dream season, but O'Leary is a 67-year-old coach with more baggage than a Southwest flight. He's probably not getting that call.

Your casual remark in last week's Mailbag -- "The significance of [South Carolina's loss to Tennessee] didn't fully hit me until the final AP poll came out last Monday. South Carolina the fourth-best team in the country? Really?" -- seems to sum up for South Carolina fans the frustration we feel with many in the national media. The Gamecocks, as you noted, beat three Top 10 teams and have gone 33-6 over the past three years but seem to be favorites amongst the pundits for "upset alerts" and the like. At what point is a little credit given?
-- Wilson, Washington D.C.

To be clear, I wasn't saying South Carolina was rated too highly, just that its ascension snuck up on me. For one thing, the Gamecocks' final ranking was higher than at any point all season. And for the third straight season, Steve Spurrier's team managed to win 11 games without winning its division or playing in a BCS bowl game. Its three bowl victories in that span came against a trio of Big Ten teams -- Nebraska (2012 Capital One Bowl), Michigan (2013 Outback Bowl) and Wisconsin (2014 Capital One Bowl) -- that finished 24th, 24th and 22nd, respectively, in the final AP poll. Meanwhile, two of South Carolina's three Top-10 wins this year, against UCF and Missouri, came before most people realized those foes would be Top-10 teams. The Gamecocks have mastered the art of producing a Top-10 team without delivering what feels like a Top-10 moment.

Now before I get 8,000 angry e-mails from Columbia, I know, I know -- Clemson. South Carolina has owned its in-state rival, winning five straight meetings at a time when the Tigers, like the Gamecocks, are enjoying sustained success. In fact, Dabo Swinney's program has probably garnered more national acclaim than Spurrier's when the latter is clearly stronger. It's a rare instance where SEC membership works against South Carolina, which gets lost sometimes in the clutter of ranked teams from that conference. Conversely, in the ACC, only Florida State gets more respect than Clemson, which only reached the Orange Bowl this year because of that bowl's ACC partnership. But once there, the Tigers defeated a Top-10 Ohio State team to boost their national credibility, much like last year's Chick-fil-A Bowl win over LSU did. Perhaps the Gamecocks wouldn't sneak up on me if they did the same. Or if they didn't lose to a 5-7 Tennessee team.

ELLIS: Report: Steve Spurrier to receive raise, extension from South Carolina

I have three favorite teams: San Jose State (went there), Notre Dame (raised catholic) and Oregon (can't root for any other California team except SJSU). Here's the question: Which team beat all three of my favorite teams this year? Once you find the answer, it only makes it worse for an Irish Spartan Duck!
-- Chuck, Austin, Texas

Hmm. Your rather odd personal coincidence leads to another -- Stanford opened the season by beating the Spartans and ended it with a loss to the Spartans.

Stewart: I see that North Dakota State, which you aptly described as a "machine" in last week's Mailbag, effectively finished the season ranked 29th in the AP poll. Is this the highest season-ending ranking ever for an FCS/I-AA school. Were the Bison the best FCS school of all-time? And what are the chances Craig Bohl can have similar success at Wyoming -- maybe not a national championship, but at least Boise State-level respectability?
-- Scott Farris, Portland, Ore.

Yes, it is the highest finish for an FCS team, though the AP only deemed the Bison eligible for the first time in 2007 after I and several other voters inquired if we could rank Appalachian State following its season-opening upset of Michigan. I'm the farthest thing from an expert on I-AA/FCS history. All I can say with certainty is that this year's North Dakota State team is clearly the best since at least that '07 Appalachian State team, though the Bison became the first FCS champion in 17 years to finish undefeated. And however successful Wyoming is realistically capable of becoming in today's landscape, Bohl will accomplish it. If he can in Fargo, he can win in Laramie. Joe Tiller did it. Granted, that was 18 years ago, and Marcus Harris isn't walking through that door, but it's possible.

Stewart, several times you've mentioned coming down from the press box to the field with about five minutes to go in a game. I assume there's an elevator helping you and your colleagues out, but it seems like you'd still have to miss some decent measure of the fourth quarter action. Are some stadiums worse than others as far as the time it takes?
-- Randy, Roswell, Ga.

Indeed, it's a clunky little sportswriter hassle. What is the exact right moment to head down where I'll miss the least game action? Mind you, many times in a down-to-the-wire game I'll stay in the press box until the game ends, though that creates its own hazards in certain stadiums. For instance, at this year's Ohio State-Michigan game, I stayed in the box and saw all of that wild ending, but then barely made the start of Urban Meyer's press conference after trying to walk halfway around the Big House in the opposite direction of 110,000 other people. In the national championship game, though, I want to be down there, close to the action, if there's any chance of a dramatic ending like this year's.

So I took a gamble. I darted to the elevator after Auburn's field goal to go up 24-20 with 4:42 left. Sometimes you time it just right and get down to the field (or at least into the stands with a view of the field) without missing a play. And sometimes, the Rose Bowl elevator stops at two other lower floors. The good news is, I only missed one play. Unfortunately, that play was Florida State's kick return for a touchdown.

And with that, it's the offseason, so I'm going into every-other-week mode with the Mailbag. Please keep the questions coming, though. We're all going to need the reading material if we hope to avoid watching the Winter Olympics.

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