On most weird weekend of most weird 2020, Saban-Kiffin matchup takes center stage

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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Alabama head coach Nick Saban could have named the score at Ole Miss two years ago. He settled for 62-7.

As Mississippi football weekends go, this one captures 2020 in a nutshell:

• Most high school games were moved from Friday night to Thursday night because of Hurricane Delta, the 25th named storm in this horribly active hurricane season. And many were played in slop, despite the change.

• Southern Miss’ homecoming football game with Florida Atlantic Saturday has been postponed because COVID-19 has so affected FAU, the south Florida school didn’t know if it could field a team. Get this: FAU and Southern Miss have both changed their schedule six times this season, and we are in the second week of October.

• Kickoff for Saturday’s Alabama-Ole Miss game at Oxford has been switched to 6:30 p.m. from 5 p.m. because playing conditions, iffy because of Hurricane Delta, should be better by then.

Rick Cleveland

Today, let’s concentrate on that Alabama-Ole Miss game, the one that brings the nation’s second-ranked (and best, in my opinion) college football team to Oxford. I had to laugh earlier in the week when Alabama coach Nick Saban, he of the six national championships, was talking about the predicted weather for Saturday and the uncertainty that the game would even be played.

Said Saban, “We’re going to make our best effort to play on Saturday…Nobody listens to anything I say anyway…”

I beg to differ. His players certainly do. For the most part, Saban’s teams have played textbook football over the years. You can take nearly any Alabama game tape over the last few years and use it as an instructional video on how to block and how to tackle. And, yes, it helps when you have the best athletes, but that’s because of Saban, too.

If you watch those tapes chronologically over the last few years, you will see a sea change in the way Alabama plays offensive football. No longer do they line up all the time in an I-formation, hand the ball to the tailback and smash the mouths of the opposition.

No, they spread the field, sometimes split five receivers wide and they throw the ball all over the place. Yes, and occasionally, they still do hand the ball to one of three or four future NFL tailbacks and smash the mouths of the opposition.

And you know whom Saban turned to when he decided to make that change to a more wide open offense? Lane Kiffin, that’s who.

It was 2014. Doug Nussmeier had left Alabama to go to Michigan. Saban hired Kiffin to replace him and said this of Kiffin: “He is an outstanding and creative offensive coach who has great experience both at the college and NFL level. … I have always been impressed with what I saw in the games he called.”

Ole Miss athletics

Lane Kiffin, amid the celebration of his first Ole Miss victory at Kentucky.

Kiffin changed the way Alabama played offense, spreading the field more, throwing the ball slightly more, going at a faster tempo. After Kiffin’s offense averaged nearly 600 yards per game in his first four games at Bama, Saban said this: “I’ve been begging the offensive coordinators to open it up ever since I’ve been here…”

He didn’t have to beg Kiffin.

Theirs is a most interesting relationship. In three seasons at Alabama, Kiffin was part of teams that lost only two SEC games, both to Ole Miss and Hugh Freeze. No doubt, Freeze and his high-tempo, spread-the-field offense had much to do with Saban hiring Kiffin to change his offense. And, for the most part, Saban praised Kiffin for his work at Alabama. But there were also times when the boss wasn’t so pleased.

One was late in a game against Western Kentucky in early September of 2016. Bama was cruising but Kiffin called something Saban clearly didn’t like. Saban ripped off his headset and tore into Kiffin while TV cameras stayed on the two of them. Asked about the “argument” post-game, Saban said, “There are no arguments. Those are called ass-chewings.”

There were more. Famously, Kiffin missed the bus a couple times after games. Saban waits for no one. And more famously, the two parted ways in 2016 when Kiffin had taken the FAU job but planned to stay on and help coach the Crimson Tide through the playoffs. Essentially, Saban said, “No need for that.”

Clearly, however, there is a mutual respect between the two. Earlier this week at his weekly press conference, Saban said this of Kiffin: “Lane has done an outstanding job (at Ole Miss). They are playing hard, making a lot of explosive plays. They present a lot of problems… We have a tremendous lot of respect for Lane and the job he did here.”

For his part, Kiffin often has credited Saban’s influence for making him a better coach.

As for Saturday’s matchup, Saban is dead-on when he talks about the explosiveness of Kiffin’s Ole Miss offense. The Rebels have plenty of offensive playmakers, who actually rival Alabama’s for speed and skill. Ole Miss can move the ball and score on virtually anybody.

Where Ole Miss doesn’t match up, nearly as well, is on defense and also in the offensive line.

No matter what time they play, or how many people listen to Saban, or how wet the field is, Alabama has more and better athletes, especially across the lines. In a very different 2020 season, that much has remained constant.