Nick Saban vs Lane Kiffin: The Once-Architect of Alabama's Modern Offense Is Now Tasked With Dismantling It

Saturday's matchup between Alabama and Ole Miss will be Nick Saban and Lane Kiffin's first time meeting since Kiffin left Tuscaloosa almost four years ago and it promises to be nothing short of exciting

It was an odd marriage and it wasn't always perfect.

There was missing team buses after games on occasion, the 'ass-chewing' against Western Kentucky, the personality differences, but in hindsight, they both probably needed each other.

When University of Alabama coach Nick Saban hired Lane Kiffin as his offensive coordinator in January of 2014, he was ready to evolve. On the other hand, Kiffin was looking for a new home, a place to rejuvenate his career following a failed stint as head coach at USC. 

"We always had a tremendous amount of respect for Lane," Saban said on this week's SEC coaches teleconference. "He’s a great coach. He’s a very good offensive play-caller. He’s got a great feel for the game, really understands what the defense is trying to do and how to take advantage of it. We wanted to get more in the spread but keep a pro-style passing game, and Lane was well-versed in the pro-style part of it. I think we all grew together in the whole RPO-spread world. That was new for all of us. Did a lot of research on it, did a great job of implementing it and learning it and he’s doing a great job with it right now and he did a great job for us here.”

Kiffin's dynamic play-calling turned Blake Sims, a running back and scout team player when he arrived at the Capstone, into the school's single-season passing leader at the time in 2014 with 3,487 yards and 28 touchdowns. 

In year two of Kiffin's offense, a Heisman Trophy winner was produced with Derrick Henry, who rushed for 2,219 yards and 28 touchdowns, propelling Alabama to its 16th national championship in school history. 

Then, in his final season in Tuscaloosa, we saw just how special of a player Jalen Hurts could be with Kiffin. Hurts, who ultimately lost the starting job to Tua Tagovailoa, dazzled in 2016, completing 63 percent of his passes for 2,780 yards and 23 scores, while adding 954 yards on the ground and another 13 additional touchdowns. 

That offensive revival helped pave the way for what Crimson Tide fans saw with Tagovailoa, and now Mac Jones under assistant Steve Sarkisian — an offense that continues to hum, scoring 45 points a game through two games in 2020.

And the offensive unit, led by Jones, is a far cry from what Kiffin saw in 2009, when he was the head coach at Tennessee, squaring off against Saban for the first time, which the Crimson Tide won, 12-10, scoring all its points on field goals.

"I wish it was the old one like we played at Tennessee when they didn’t score any touchdowns," Kiffin said earlier this week. "It’s very different. It’s why Coach [Saban] changed. They’re explosive, they attack, they pass first. Tons of shots down the field. Way harder to defend."

Kiffin is now getting his first shot at Saban as a former assistant on Saturday when the Ole Miss Rebels host the Crimson Tide at 6:30 p.m inside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford, Miss.

He will join the long list of former assistants who have tried to bring down the master and all, up to this point, have failed going a combined 20-0 against Saban.

"First off, it gets rid of this whole, 'I know him, so that’s an advantage' thing," Kiffin said. "That thing’s kind of shot down because there’s been 20 games where the coaches knew him and they went 0-20. I think that just shows that you can’t duplicate somewhere just because you worked there. What Coach [Saban] does is very unique. It works for him. I don’t think it works for many other people, his style. He has it nailed, and everybody knows what it is when they get there. It’s why it works. On the same token, too, the guy’s undefeated against 95 percent of coaches except for, what, Gus (Malzahn), Dabo (Swinney) and Urban (Meyer) or something? 

"No one else has beat him. He’s got that record against everybody."

The first-year Rebel coach poked fun at Saban earlier this week when asked about their matchup, saying that the soon-to-be 69 year old couldn't cover him in a one-on-one situation.

Saban's response was golden and brought a big grin to his face, but the problem for Kiffin is, he isn't the one playing, he's gotta coach against him, which, for former Saban disciples, that continues to be one of the tallest mountains to climb in all of college football.

"I think he's probably right," Saban said. "I wouldn't disagree with him. I guess what I would ask is when he's my age, what's he's going to do? I don't know. I mean, it's a little bit of a disadvantage to be my age and have had a hip replacement. But I still pride myself on my ability to cover. I just don't think I can cover him."