Lane Kiffin has jokes.
Throughout the week leading into the Ole Miss vs. Alabama game this Saturday, Kiffin's joked that his former boss, Nick Saban, couldn't cover him one-on-one. He's joked that Saban isn't really much of a texter that checks in on his former coaches.
More realistically, and more seriously when it relates to this weekend's game, he's joked that he wished Alabama still ran the same offenses they did 10 to 12 years ago, when Kiffin would face them in Tennessee.
"They're so much more dynamic now on offense with how they play and pushing the ball downfield," Kiffin said. "We played them at Tennessee, and they had Julio Jones, Mark Ingram and a great offensive line, but it was a different offense. It was more grind it out and slow. People could keep the games closer. Now they just blow everyone out. Just a totally different style of offense the last six years."
What Kiffin won't joke about, or really pontificate about, is taking credit for the modern Alabama offense. But there's no doubt he had a massive influence on bringing the Crimson Tide into the late 21st century offensive philosophy.
Even Nick Saban himself admits it. Around the time that Alabama was beating everyone with bully-ball football—winning with the ground game and defense—Saban started to realize the benefits of the new-age, high-flying offenses that were taking over the sport.
That's when he sought out Kiffin for the first time, and hired him in 2014 to be the Alabama offense coordinator.
"We always had a tremendous amount of respect for Lane. He's a great coach and a great offensive play caller. He's got a great feel for the game and really understands what defenses are trying to do and how to take advantage of it," Saban said. "We wanted to get more into the spread and keep a pro-style passing game. Lane was well versed in the pro-style part of it."
In the seven years Saban was the head coach at Alabama before Kiffin's arrival, the Tide won either the SEC or the BCS national championship three times. With Kiffin as the OC, they won the SEC each year and the 2015 national championship. During the three title runs pre-Kiffin (2009, 2011, 2012), Saban's Alabama teams averaged just 206.9 yards passing yards per game.
In Kiffin's first year as the Alabama offensive coordinator, the team threw for 277.9 yards per game, but as a whole in his three years the team averaged 238.3 passing yards. It's not a major difference in output; it was more of a difference in philosophy.
"I think we all kind of grew together in the whole RPO and spread world," Saban said. "That was new for all of us. We. did a lot of research on it and did a great job of implementing and learning it. But [Kiffin] is doing a great job with that now and he did a great job of it here."
Saban was quick to admit they weren't the first to do such a drastic philosophical change in the SEC.
While they may have brought it more into the mainstream, it was actually Ole Miss and Hugh Freeze that first embraced the SEC spread, in Saban's mind.
And honestly, those Ole Miss teams gave Alabama significant issues. In both 2014 and 2015, the Rebels beat Alabama, scoring 43 points on the Tide in the 2015 meeting. Alabama would go on to win the National Championship that year, but had the Ole Miss blemish on their resume still.
"I don't really know why they started doing what they did," Saban said of Ole Miss. "I can only tell you it kind of influenced us starting to do what we did."
Now, Saban's teams are as pass happy as ever. Over the past two seasons, Alabama ranked the top six nationally in passing per game, averaging over 330 passing yards per game.
So far this season with Mac Jones under center, that number has risen to 369 yards per game.
"They've become a pass-first team, which I don't think anyone would have ever thought during the Saban era. But they are," Kiffin said.
We may not be able to completely credit the Kiffin–Saban relationship for completely redefining offensive philosophy in the SEC, but it's impossible to think it didn't play a major role in the college football we see now.
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