If it's Lane Kiffin's call, expect the unexpected with Auburn and Ole Miss

If it’s Lane Kiffin’s call, expect the unexpected with Auburn and Ole Miss

The slick tongue and slight smile Lane Kiffin flashed Saturday night and again Monday didn’t slow anxious heartbeats in Oxford or Auburn.

The Ole Miss coach is a hot commodity, even after losing three of the last four and the latest a demoralizing blowout in sub-freezing temperatures at unranked Arkansas. Auburn still has him as priority No. 1 in his search for a head coach, industry sources tell 247Sports, and the clock is ticking heading into the final week of the regular season.

Kiffin has reaffirmed his happiness in Oxford twice and offered jokes regarding his candidacy at Auburn, but has yet to offer a verbal commitment to the Rebels, who reportedly offered him a new contract last week. The latest humorous soundbite Monday was a pull from former Ole Miss coach Tommy Tubervillewho infamously said he would only leave Oxford in a “pine box” in 1998. Forty-eight hours later Tuberville bolted for Auburn.

I’m extremely happy here. The difference in where this program is compared to three years ago, and we feel like we have really good support,” Kiffin said Monday. “I can get up here and give the pine box speech and (Nick Saban‘s) ‘I’m not going to be the next head coach at Alabama.’ I can give you those things. I don’t know what those mean. Been here three years and have been fortunate enough to have three different contracts. I don’t know why a fourth contract makes people feel better. Like I said, we’re very appreciative of everything here.”

Still, business is business. He knows better than to commit to something in the uncertain world of the coaching carousel. What he could do to quiet the masses is re-up with Ole Miss, much like colleague Mark Stoops at Kentucky.

Instead, Kiffin makes jokes and leaves everyone on edge. It’s a business decision, sure, particularly if he can use Auburn for leverage to improve the deal on the table at Ole Miss – and vice versa – but it’s no joke. Simply put, not even the likeable Lane Kiffin can have it both ways.

“I don’t know that stuff out there — No. 1 stuff,” Kiffin joked Saturday night after the 42-27 loss at Arkansas. “Maybe if [Auburn] watched the first half I wouldn’t be No. 1 anymore then.”

Maybe the Auburn folks heard Arkansas fans inside Razorback Stadium chanting “Auburn” to Kiffin with less than 2 minutes remaining in the third quarter, too.

Kiffin’s comments have been dissected and construed many different ways on message boards, and you can imagine the overreactions, particularly with Kiffin’s humor lacing a subject as serious as the health of two SEC football programs. Ole Miss players haven’t asked Kiffin about the rumors and Kiffin hasn’t addressed the team about them either. Only Kiffin knows what he’s thinking, and whether he plans to enter advanced talks with Auburn after the Rebels host rival Mississippi State for Thanksgiving dinner.

Here’s what we do know: Auburn is interested in Kiffin and Ole Miss wants him to stay for a fourth season and beyond. There’s a lot to like about Kiffin and over the course of two years he has quickly become the coach so many in the SEC want to emulate.

The Rebels are an incredible 18-6 in the last two seasons and are two wins away from recording back-to-back, 10-win records for the first time in 62 years. The fact Kiffin achieved this in just three seasons is paramount in the era of the Transfer Portal. The fact he did it at Ole Miss is the key to why Auburn needs him. The self-titled “Transfer Portal King” has expertly maneuvered the unknowns of player departures and NIL deals by grabbing top-tier quarterbacks, running backs, tight ends and defensive playmakers out of the portal. It’s that incredible hit rate in the portal — the 2022 class ranked No. 2 in the country – that has made him easy to imitate but difficult to replicate. Auburn simply can’t miss on this hire, not with its talent level on a nosedive and at least 22 more players leaving this offseason, including the entire offensive line. The Tigers might face the biggest roster rebuild in college football in 2023, and that’s a prime opportunity for a coach to build a roster to his standards via the Transfer Portal..

The talent remaining at Auburn is not enough, though there are some superstars like running backs Tank Bigsby and Jarquez Hunter.. Thirty-one players left Auburn during Bryan Harsin’s 22-month troll job on the Plains. The roster as it stands now is not one that will reach a bowl game in 2023. They need help. The Tigers not only need new bodies along the offensive line, they also need immediate help on the defensive line, and a dynamic quarterback and a complete reload at receiver to compete in the explosive SEC West.

With more departures surely coming when the transfer portal opens Dec. 5, Auburn’s next coach will not only need a history of success in the portal but also a ready-to-implement plan modeled just for Auburn’s needs.

College football is no longer about a coach’s gut feelings or motivational speeches, or good and bad practice habits. It’s a numbers game. Coaches want the highest-rated recruits and transfers in the offseason, and those with the most talented rosters usually contend for conference titles. On game days, coaches turn to analytics rather than intuition to steer decisions in crucial situations.

Kiffin does both.

He adapted and adopted the philosophies and made them the pillars of his program as college football transformed through recruiting rules changes in 2020. His foray into analytics is well-known and criticized, but mostly successful (and endearing to fans). The Rebels set the FBS record with 49 fourth-down attempts in 2021 and won 10 games. Off the field, analytics shape his staff’s recruiting in the portal. Do I need a tight end with more value as a pass catcher on second-and-long or one with a better success rate as an edge blocker on second-and-3? Show the data and allow it to inform and steer final decisions.

Kiffin is aggressive and unapologetic about that approach, and not afraid to bend norms.

“It’s not easy. Like anything, if it was easy, everyone would do it. I get it,” Kiffin said in May. “A lot of coaches don’t follow the analytics because it’s very hard for that press conference afterwards or for that stadium to turn on you when it doesn’t work.”

Certainly someone – maybe only Kiffin – has analyzed the numbers and weighed whether becoming Auburn’s head coach is worthwhile in 2023 and also in 2030. Four of the last five head coaches have won a national title, coached in a national title game or recorded an undefeated season. Only Harsin fell short in his 21 games on the sideline.

Ole Miss is one of only four programs to never reach the SEC Championship Game since its inception in 1992. The Rebels last won an SEC title in 1963 and haven’t finished a season undefeated or in the national championship race since 1962.

That doesn’t mean Ole Miss is incapable of greatness. Kiffin is doing things never done before at Ole Miss, so perhaps he is just the coach who will change the trajectory and place the Rebels on top of the SEC. There is also loyalty to consider. The Rebels’ brass gave him a second chance as an SEC head coach after he revitalized his career as FAU’s head coach and Saban’s offensive coordinator at Alabama.

Kiffin will analyze the pluses and minuses – and, yes, which NIL collective is best to help lure players – but he will ultimately bet on himself if Auburn (or others) come calling. Where he best fits is for him to mull, and while that decision will be calculated, many will term it outlandish. In the end, he will continue to be as successful as the analytic-guided calls he makes on fourth downs and in the Transfer Portal.

Brandon Marcello is a national college football reporter for 247Sports. You can follow him on Twitter (@bmarcello).

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