By Jimmy Hyams
Lane Kiffin has coached twice in Neyland Stadium since his awkward departure for USC in January 2010.
But this is the first time the former Tennessee coach has come with a team as the head coach.
Love him or not, Lane Kiffin still moves the needle in Knoxville.
If you don’t believe it, how else do you explain Tennessee announcing a sellout of 102,455 on Tuesday when the Vols hadn’t sold 90,000 to a home game this year?
Tennessee has yet to have an actual attendance crowd of 70,000. You can bet it will be close to 100,000 Saturday night.
Ole Miss has helped with the sellout, buying 3,300 of its allotment from UT and fans buying thousands more on the open market. Don’t be surprised if about 10,000 Rebels fans are in the stands.
Kiffin did a good job at Tennessee in 2009. He guided the Vols to a 7-5 record, almost upset Alabama, blew out Georgia and South Carolina and earned a trip to the Chick-fil-A bowl. He also did a nice job resurrecting the career of quarterback Jonathan Crompton..
The narrative that he inherited a weak roster isn’t true. The Vols had two first-round draft choices (Eric Berry and Dan Williams) a second-round pick (Montario Hardesty) and three others drafted no later than the fifth round. That roster also included two others taken by the fifth round the next year: tight end Luke Stocker, receiver Denarius Moore.
The only game Kiffin lost that he shouldn’t have: UCLA.
Still, he was a fan favorite. That’s the reason there was a near riot on campus when it was learned he was leaving UT for USC.
Fans wouldn’t have been upset about him leaving if they didn’t like him. They certainly weren’t upset when Derek Dooley, Butch Jones and Jeremy Pruitt were fired.
Kiffin has proven to be an excellent offensive coordinator and play caller since leaving UT. His abilities as a head coach are yet to be determined.
If he can become a consistent eight-game winner at Ole Miss, my hat’s off to him.
Regarding Saturday’s night, here are some observations:
Is UT a top 25 team?
Kiffin says he believes Tennessee is a top 25 team and said he voted that way in the coaches’ poll.
“Two blowout SEC wins are hard to come by,’’ Kiffin said.
They have been for Tennessee in recent years. Yet, the Vols haven’t done enough to be ranked. They lost to two good teams: Pitt and Florida. They haven’t beaten decent opponent yet.
A win over No. 13 Ole Miss could put the Vols in the polls.
It would also ingratiate the Vol Nation even more to Josh Heupel, who has done a wonderful job maximizing UT’s roster. The Vols’ offense, run defense, effort and chemistry are to be applauded, especially when 44 different players could be on this team (UT lost 38 in transfer portal since start of last season, two took medical leaves and four asked out of their National Letter of Intent).
And a Heupel win in Year One at Tennessee would win over even more fans if he could beat Kiffin, who is in Year Two.
Both teams like to run
Tennessee is averaging 253.7 rush yards per game behind a make-shift offensive line and with multiple injuries to running backs. Tiyan Evans has been a surprise, as he ranks 4 th in the SEC in rushing.
Ole Miss averages 259.6 rush yards per game. They have a trio of fine backs, led by Jerrion Ealy, Snoop Connor (seven touchdowns) and Henry Parrish. And Matt Corral is an excellent runner; he already has eight rushing touchdowns.
If I voted today on the Heisman Trophy, Corral would get my nod.
As much as I like UT quarterback Hendon Hooker (275.75 total yards per game, 14 touchdowns accounted for in four starts) I have to give the edge to Corral.
Playing the `what if’ game
Kiffin was asked if he made a mistake leaving UT for USC in 2010.
He didn’t say yes, but he said he was told by USC officials that the Trojans would only get a slap on the wrist for the Reggie Bush debacle.
They got a two-year bowl ban, a 30-scholarship reduction and all juniors and seniors could transfer without having to sit out. That, Kiffin said, was as close to the death penalty as you can get.
Kiffin was famously fired on the airport tarmac during his fourth season at USC.
Would he have fared better without the NCAA sanctions? Certainly.
Would UT have done better in the decade after Kiffin departed if Kiffin had stayed? Absolutely. But how much better, no one knows for sure. He would have recruited well and been a thrown in the side to Georgia and Florida and Alabama.
But would he have ever won the East Division?
There’s no way to know.
Tennessee’s defense is better than I expected. The run defense has been outstanding, for the most part, against teams without a really good running quarterback, like Florida.
One problem: Corral is a really good running quarterback.
Corral also has 12 touchdown passes against 0 interceptions. He threw 14 picks last year, 11 in two games (six against Arkansas, five against LSU).
Tennessee’s offense is also better than I thought: 41.5 points per game, No. 7 in the nation in rushing, No. 19 in total offense.
One problem: Ole Miss’ offense is even better. The Rebels average 46.2 points per game, and rank No. 5 in rushing, and No. 2 in total offense.
Several keys for Tennessee: Coral Corral; if he escapes the pocket, you’re in trouble. Also, third-and-fourth downs. Tennessee must win those conversion rates. And UT must avoid sacks. UT has been sacked an SEC-leading 20 times. And sacks on three straight second-half possessions helped kill drives against South Carolina.
Tennessee has been able to overcome quite a few injuries on offense and defense.
But I don’t think they can overcome not having Evans against Ole Miss.
I’m not 100% sure Evans won’t play, but if he does, I don’t think he’ll be 100%.
Score: Ole Miss 45 Tennessee 38