Lane Kiffin spent more time in the spotlight than any person working under Nick Saban ever has.
Pre-Alabama baggage ensured massive outside interest in Kiffin’s work, and he fed the click-bait beast with every celebratory gesture, visor flip and social-media jab. He has been a star since arriving in Tuscaloosa three years ago, and now he’s trying to win a second straight championship before moving on to, comparatively, much browner pastures.
Some think Kiffin’s impact on the Crimson Tide’s offense is overrated, and the raw numbers give them a legitimate case; Alabama had narrowly missed out on a national three-peat the season before Kiffin arrived, and the Tide will probably keep running and passing at will for the next two-plus seasons with Jalen Hurts.
But those who examine Kiffin’s Alabama legacy would be wise to look at the micro, not the macro.
He had an inordinate amount of flash and braggadacio for an assistant coach at a thoroughly blue-collar school. But he tended to back up those things with substance when the offense needed it. Alabama would’ve been a great team without Kiffin, but would it have been a championship team?
We got a glimpse of an alternate universe when ‘Bama lost to Ohio State in the 2014 College Football Playoff and then to Ole Miss the following September. Critics pointed to the defense as the source of what was supposedly a major problem in Tuscaloosa. The college football world (allegedly) was catching up to Nick Saban, and he was powerless to stop it.
It speaks to the exuberance of those who wished to see Alabama — the Wicked Witch of the South — get crushed by a new-millennium home that it only took a single regular-season failure to declare “The Process” dead. There was a blowout loss to Trevor Knight and Oklahoma in the Jan. 2014 Sugar Bowl, and that aforementioned semifinal loss to Ohio State one year later, but, c’mon … the defense was dominant after the Mississippi loss, and it’s been the best in the country this autumn.
To the critics’ point, though, the defense has broken down against elite quarterbacks. And in those moments of weakness, Alabama needed a hero on the other side of the ball.
Lane Kiffin was that hero, despite relishing his role as an anti-hero.
His offense was inefficient during a few stretches of his three-season stint (the Jake Coker Rehabilitation Project hit a few snags last year), and he angered a large subset of the fans that found odd comfort in screaming “RUN THE BALL!”
But there’s not a single loss in his tenure that you can blame the offense for outright. And there are a few wins on Saban’s record that he can credit to Kiffin’s air-friendly attack.
Exhibit A would be the 2014 Iron Bowl, when the defense could do nothing to hold back Gus Malzahn’s spread offense, and Auburn took a 36-34 lead into the fourth quarter. Kiffin orchestrated a 21-point final period that capped a spectacular day for quarterback Blake Sims and cleared the way for Alabama to make an appearance in the inaugural College Football Playoff.
(The defense later blew a 21-6 lead against third-string passer Cardale Jones and Ohio State in the semifinal.)
Exhibit B: A back-and-forth 48-43 win against Ole Miss this September that halted a two-game losing streak to the Rebels. Kiffin’s offense sputtered early — and got plenty of help from a touchdown-happy defense – but consistently moved the ball in the second half to provide enough cushion to withstand a fierce rally from Chad Kelly.
The Tide matched the Rebels’ firepower when it needed to. Which brings us to Exhibit C: the national title game.
Heisman Trophy finalist Deshaun Watson had an all-time great game against the Alabama defense this past January, putting up 400-plus passing yards and 4 touchdowns while adding 73 yards on the ground.*
(*Note for overconfident Tide fans: This was only 11 months ago.)
It was a Vince Young-esque performance, and Watson appeared ready to finish off Alabama just as Young helped Texas upset USC in the title game a decade earlier. A pair of Alabama special teams plays helped win the game in the fourth quarter (The Kick! The Return!) but let us not forget the outstanding offensive game plan and play-calling that allowed ‘Bama to be in that position vs. a white-hot Watson.
Jake Coker (335 passing yards, 2 touchdowns, no interceptions) had perhaps the finest game of his career, while Derrick Henry (158 rushing yards, 3 touchdowns) provided his own fitting ending. Most electric of all was tight end O.J. Howard, who became a national star by catching two long scores and racking up 208 yards through the air.
Defense did not win the championship; offense did.
An 8-play, 64-yard drive culminated in a fourth-quarter field goal that tied the game, 24-24. Following the famous onside kick, Coker hit Howard for a 51-yard touchdown and a lead that the Tide would not relinquish.
The nail — courtesy Henry — came at the back end of an 8-play, 75-yard drive that bled the clock and gave Alabama the two-score lead it so desperately needed.
Say what you want about his off-field issues, on-field antics and quixotic personality. But anyone who doubts the impact Kiffin had on Saban’s program need only re-watch that final drive vs. Clemson to remember exactly what he did for Alabama.