Where Arkansas Football Would Be if Lane Kiffin Said “Yes” to Hogs in December 2019

Lane Kiffin

After being the tougher team the first four Saturdays of the season, the Razorbacks got an ego-deflating reality check by the #2 Georgia Bulldogs this past weekend in Athens. The Bulldogs have finally reached a point where they truly resemble Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide in the trenches: big, physical football players with remarkable athleticism for their size while being coached by a defensive wizard.

Kirby Smart’s Dawgs don’t have the offensive skill players like Bama, but he’s got the formula on how to dominate everyone else in the league, including the re-energized Razorbacks. 

Week 6 presents a totally different challenge for Coach Sam Pittman’s troops as they travel to Oxford for a 11 AM kickoff on ESPN. The Rebels are coming off a similar shellacking at the hands of Alabama so both teams will be looking to put this past weekend’s games in the rear view.

Ignore those 14 meaningless fourth quarter points the Rebels put up as the game was decidedly over early. 

Arkansas vs Ole Miss

The winner of this game may be who doesn’t still have their feelings hurt over last weekend’s results and who is the healthiest after being physically dominated last Saturday. 

There are a handful of media-friendly story lines for this game:

  • Who is the next best team after Bama in the SEC West?
  • Can Ole Miss QB Matt Corral revive his Heisman campaign against a team that flustered him into six interceptions last season?
  • Will the Hogs’ QB KJ Jefferson get the offense rocking and rolling against a much-maligned defense in his home state of Mississippi?
  • What new tricks will Barry Odom have up his sleeve to play cat and mouse with Rebels’ offensive coordinate Jeff Lebby?

Interestingly, Lebby and Arkansas Offensive Coordinator Kendal Briles were on the same staff at Baylor from 2008-2016. When Briles was OC at Baylor in 2015 and 2016, Lebby was his passing game coordinator and running backs coach. Both are considered elite level offensive minds in the college game.

When scandal rocked the Baylor football program the entire staff was let go and Briles landed as the OC at Florida Atlantic under none other than Rebel head coach Lane Kiffin. 

And speaking of Kiffin and story lines…there is no secret Kiffin was coveted by Razorback administration and fans after the dismissal of Chad Morris in 2019. Some will say he turned the job down, others will say he was never formally offered the position. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and I have no doubt Kiffin aka “Joey Freshwater” was pursued but opted for Oxford.

He did that because, more likely than not, things there were far less in the ditch than the Arkansas football program was during and after Morris’s exodus. 

What if Lane Kiffin Led Arkansas Football?

So for fun, let’s consider how things might be at this still too-early-to-tell juncture if Kiffin would have said “yes” to Hunter Yurcheck back in November/early December of 2019.

How would Kiffin instead of Sam Pittman have panned out as the Hogs’ head coach?

First and foremost, Kiffin brought A LOT of baggage that is probably only topped in modern day coaching circles by former head Hog Bobby Petrino. (Mike Irwin didn’t refer to him as a “divorced Bobby Petrino” for nothing.)

By the time Lane Kiffin was 44 years old, Ole Miss was/is his fifth head coaching job. Fired (by phone) early in his second year at the helm of the Oakland Raiders and called a “professional liar” by then Raiders’ owner Al Davis. He then spent one controversial season at the University of Tennessee then bailed for USC (the one in California with legendary football success).

Kiffin was fired (on the tarmac after a blowout loss to Arizona State) early in his fourth season at USC despite early success post-Pete Carroll but no progress with players he recruited under the handcuffs of the Reggie Bush NCAA sanctions and more off the field shenanigans coupled with questionable coaching moves. 

Then comes a three season stint as the offensive coordinator at Alabama where he was famously fired before the national championship game. Kiffin was perceived to be disengaged with his responsibilities at Bama while he recruited staff and players for his upcoming new gig as the head coach at Florida Atlantic.

Kiffin won big at Conference USA’s Florida Atlantic without much controversy in Boca Raton. Perhaps he was maturing and humbled by dropping down below Power Five football. But who are we kidding here…the “Lane Train” was just buying time and racking up wins waiting on the next wishful contender in big time college football. 

That’s when the Arkansas’s and the Ole Miss’s of the college football world were both in desperate need of a new coach that would re-energize their respective programs.

Neither program was anywhere close to being in a position to turn their nose up at Kiffin and all his transgressions. Especially Arkansas.

One has to wonder if Kiffin, as Arkansas football head coach, would have gotten a QB on campus to get him started off on the right foot. There is no question that nod goes to Ole Miss as Matt Corral has grown into a top tier QB talent with his name in the Heisman conversation and likely the first quarterback taken in this upcoming NFL draft.

The California native was the #3 ranked pro style QB coming out of high school and flipped from Florida to Ole Miss when Shea Patterson elected to transfer to Michigan. KJ Jefferson is looking like a capable SEC QB thus far but he’s no Corral. 

In typical Ole Miss fashion (wins come secondary to the social), Corral and perhaps Kiffin’s claim to fame came in a loss when they lit up the vaunted Crimson Tide defense for 48 points and 647 yards a year ago.

Kiffin sure didn’t select Ole Miss because of the defense. The Rebels were incredibly inept on the side of the ball in Kiffin’s first season. The jury is still out in year two as their schedule has been light and then over-powered by Bama.

The Rebel defense against the Arkansas offense this Saturday will be an interesting game within the game because as bad as Ole Miss was last year on defense, they handled the Briles/Feleipe Franks led Hogs to a very underwhelming day. Especially considering the Hogs were the beneficiary of seven turnovers, two of which went for TDs. 

The Hogs’ Cost of Hiring Lane Kiffin

Let’s be clear here: there is ZERO chance Barry Odom would be the defensive coordinator on Kiffin’s hypothetical staff at Arkansas. Odom’s ability to disguise defenses and match game plans to opponents has been a big reason the Hogs have quickly gotten relevant in college football again.

If you are a Barry Odom fan, be happy Pittman got the job and brought his good pal to the Ozarks. Even if it is a short stay as he seeks another opportunity to be a head coach again. 

Perhaps the unmarried Kiffin found Oxford to be more to his liking. Ole Miss proudly boasts they never lose a party and I don’t think anyone is going to argue that. The University of Mississippi is known wide and far for the social scene in and around the quaint little town of Oxford.

It’s a target-rich environment, if you will, for ole Joey Freshwater. 

By all indications, Kiffin has matured and seems more humble saying and doing all the right things with the media. Witty social media posts and contrite interviews about him and his team have been the norm during his time at Ole Miss.

The only sign of his old ways, so far, was his interview this past weekend when he chunked the headset down and walked off his pre-game onfield CBS interview this past weekend. His “here we go, get your popcorn ready” statement ended up falling flat as the Crimson Tide dominated the first half and led 28-0 before calling off the dogs. 

To his credit, he did show a sense of humor about it afterward:

Interestingly, his penchant for questionable coaching decisions also popped up with him going for it three times on 4th down with no conversions against Bama including once around his own 30. This is the same guy that tried a 76-yard field goal at Oakland and countless head scratching coaching moves at USC. 

A season and a half into their first seasons, it’s still a little too early to know Pittman is truly the right guy despite the great early returns. Would Kiffin have had as much early “success” without Matt Corral? I’m guessing, with that defense, not a chance.

Kiffin wants to beat you with an explosive offense with a roster and staff built to outscore you. Fun and exciting when they have the ball, dreadful when they don’t. 

There are a ton of college football teams racking up video game-like offensive numbers that don’t win a whole lot of meaningful games. Case in point…the Big 12. Will Kiffin ever dedicate recruiting resources and make personnel hires to be tolerable on defense? Time will tell. Hugh Freeze seemed to be able to do both at Ole Miss but had to blatantly cheat to do so. 

Another example, without digressing too much, is Eli Drinkwitz. He was rumored to have ties to the Arkansas job but landed at Missouri. Their defense is probably worse than Mississippi’s was last year. Kinda decent Tennessee just burned them for 683 yards and 62 points in Columbia this past weekend. Another team with an awful, uninspired defense coupled with a razzle dazzle offense. 

That formula doesn’t work to consistently be in the upper half of this league. Many have tried. Many have failed.

Pros of Sam Pittman over Lane Kiffin

I tend to really, really like Sam Pittman and where things are. He knows to win consistently in the SEC where you better have some grown men on that line of scrimmage. Arkansas is exponentially more physical than what fans have seen in recent years but obviously not in the same stratosphere as Georgia and the kings of college football, Alabama.

He is still building the program in the framework for which he knows works. That takes time and the success thus far is truly remarkable. Achieving a top 10 ranking in his second season is beyond expectation or anyone’s sane reality. REMARKABLE given how non-competitive the program was the previous three seasons. 

And that’s likely the reality of why Kiffin didn’t take the job. The program was lower than low after Morris was kicked to the curb. Other than some quality recruiting by Morris and his staff, there was nothing redeeming about his time in Fayetteville, especially QB play.

Who knows if Franks would have transferred here if Kiffin got the job?

Another pro-Pittman item is, at this point, there is no fear of Pittman saying or doing the wrong thing and embarrassing himself or the program. Hunter Yurachek can sleep soundly in that regard and I’m not so sure AD Keith Carter at Ole Miss can say the same. When will the old Lane show up in Oxford and do something that gets him canned like so many previous stops?

The last and final upside to Pittman over Kiffin is Coach Pittman has his dream job and plans to retire a Razorback. If he keeps producing competitive football teams, he will have every opportunity to do so. And by “competitive,” I’m talking about a realistic 6-9 wins on the reg and maybe pop a big time bowl game here and there. Practical Razorback fans shouldn’t strive to be Alabama and be upset when the Hogs aren’t. Nice goal. Not rational. 

There is no way Ole Miss is Lane Kiffin’s last stop and a short stay in Oxford is likely imminent given his track record. Whether by his choice or the administration. If he keeps winning some games and keeps his behavior in check, a bigger name brand than Ole Miss will come calling and away he will go.

These two guys couldn’t be more different on a lot of levels. Age, ideas on how to build a program, personality, reputation and head coaching experience are all so very different when comparing the two side by side. Which one is best? All depends on what you’re looking for in a head coach.

Both have rebuilds going in the right direction in year two. Sam Pittman has been grabbing headlines for all the right reasons. Lane Kiffin typically grabs them for all the wrong ones. 

I’ll take the former for the long haul each and every time. 

For more on what’s at stake in Arkansas-Ole Miss check out the 8:00 mark below:

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