- Travis Haney, ESPN Staff Writer
As we count down 50 days until the start of the 2014 college football season, ESPN Insider Travis Haney is answering at least one big question a day until South Carolina and Texas A&M’s kickoff on Aug. 28.
Heisman contenders, breakout freshmen, conference winners -- it will all be covered as part of Insider’s Ultimate Season Preview.
Today’s question: What will we be saying in January about Lane Kiffin’s first season as Alabama’s offensive coordinator? Will this work?
We got great news Wednesday, when it was announced that Alabama and USC will face each other to open the 2016 season.
But will Kiffin still be at Alabama for that reunion with his former school?
Presuming Nick Saban has not retired and Kiffin has not accepted another job, I’m wondering whether this experiment will work out for Saban and the Tide.
After this season, will we be discussing it as a success, a failure or something in between?
There is no shortage of opinions from coaches on Kiffin and whether he will fare well at Bama, and I’ve found mixed feelings in recent weeks and months about the Saban-Kiffin marriage while I’ve been on the road. Some samplings:
The positive coach: “I say it works. [Kiffin] seems to respect [Saban]. There seems to be respect both ways. I think [Kiffin] falls in line because he knows what’s expected there. He knows how Nick runs things.”
This thought proved fairly popular, maybe more so than I perceived it would be. Some coaches think that Kiffin, now that he is running an offense and not a program, can get away from some of the self-created static that wrecked his chances to be a successful head coach.
“He knows football” is a common refrain from coaches, and Kiffin has a strong reputation for X’s and O’s. Given that, plus the way Alabama stockpiles talent, he is obviously in a great spot. In particular, watch how he uses a versatile TE like O.J. Howard.
How he works with and develops incoming QB Jake Coker will be intriguing, especially because USC really wobbled at QB in 2012 and the first month of 2013. Cody Kessler then really improved, for what that’s worth. From all I hear about his arm, Coker might be as physically talented as, or maybe more than, Matt Barkley.
The negative coach: “No way. The guy is toxic. I couldn’t believe [Saban] hired him. Still can’t.”
There is some of this out there, too. Toxic is harsh, but Kiffin’s recent track record is clearly not great.
A number of coaches aren’t sure Kiffin is buttoned-up enough to work with the rigid Saban. The last time Kiffin was an assistant, under Pete Carroll, it was on one of the more laid-back staffs in recent history. Saban and Carroll, although both winners, will never be confused for twins.
At a coaching clinic this summer, I heard Kiffin say that you have to know, even as an assistant, how to take criticism from Saban.
“He’s not saying something to be mean,” Kiffin said. “He wants to make you better, make the team better. You can’t take it personally.”
Does that become grating at some point, particularly for someone who had perhaps become used to being the boss rather than having one? It’s certainly worth monitoring.
The jokingly negative coach: “Is this how Rome falls?”
That’s assigning a lot of value to Kiffin, asserting that his hiring could signal the end for Alabama’s pseudo-dynasty.
If that does coincide, the reality is he would be a symptom rather than the disease.
If you’re looking for a more fact-based fall-of-Rome factor than a scapegoat like Kiffin, it’s the hurry-up offense infiltrating the league. As I just wrote to an editor, this is an important season for Saban and Alabama: It will determine whether the Tide have a legitimate problem defending these teams, or whether the high-scoring games against Texas A&M, Auburn and Oklahoma were inconvenient blips in 2013.