What’s your favorite Lane Kiffin disaster? Was it being put in charge of the Raiders at the age of 32 and winning 11 games in two years? Was it setting the entire state of Tennessee on fire as he split for USC after one year on the job? Or was it getting fired on the tarmac after losing to Arizona State five games into the 2013 season? Between all the scandalous rumors, on and off the field, fractious handling of assistants, open disputes with his upper management, and the now-cooled Twitter presence, Lane Kiffin has been a lightning rod of criticism coupled with a begrudging respect for his offensive prowess. Since his stint at Nick Saban’s Island of Misfit Toys, he’s seemingly matured enough and become a legitimate candidate for several prominent jobs. My question, as has been the case in this series, is simply: is he worth it? I’ll give my take and show my work, but first, let’s take a peek at his coaching history:
USC. The Raiders. Tennessee. Alabama. Florida Atlantic? Lane has certainly tied his career to some top tier football brands and - NFL stint aside - leveraged that into some successful runs. Florida Atlantic is his first stop that has been out of the spotlight and his first chance at rehabilitating a fallen program. That has equated to two of the best years in the history of FAU football, but I’ve noticed some not-so-great aspects about Kiffin’s football career.
Lane played quarterback at Fresno State and has coached tight ends, receivers, and quarterbacks throughout his career, but made the biggest impact while coordinating those excellent USC offenses of the mid-aughts. In fact, the worst offense he’s ever been in charge of is the current iteration in Boca Raton, ranked 61st as of this week. Remove the offenses at FAU, and the worst he’s had was the Tennessee unit that still ranked 29th. “Well that’s awesome, Nate,” you might think to yourself. “The guy shows up and makes offenses awesome. The 60th best offense with Conference USA talent is like the 20th best with SEC talent!” Well, not so fast, straw-man-I-just-made-up. Yes, his offenses at USC and Alabama were elite, but he was utilizing talent that was worlds better than the teams he was going up against. His lone offense at Tennessee benefited from the magic touch of Jim Cheney, one of the top tier coordinators then and now. And his 30th ranked offense in his first year at FAU was guided by the evil genius Kendall Briles; once Briles left the Owl-fense (couldn’t help myself) they tumbled to 49th and 61st...good, yes, but not elite. Essentially, I’m getting the feeling that, without a giant talent gap or elite coordinator, Kiffin’s offenses are merely good. While that would be an upgrade to the disaster of the 2019 Tigers, I’m not sure it would put Missouri in a better place in the long term.
So...about that recruiting. It’s unclear how good Kiffin is at it, or even how involved, but it’s telling that, up until he took the FAU gig, the worst recruiting class he ever had to work with was ranked 20th in the nation. And those classes don’t always equate to Top 10 finishes either, mind you. Granted, it’s tough to continuously finish in the Top 10 no matter how you recruit, but the fact that only three of his classes finished the year better than where the recruiting rankings would peg them is telling. Again, Missouri operates at a recruiting deficit to 12 of its SEC peers; Kiffin definitely improved FAU’s recruiting base and two of those three classes that I mentioned were FAU classes. He’s also leveraged the transfer market beautifully, bringing in highly-ranked kids booted from their respective P5 teams and leveraging JUCO cast-offs (especially several stars of Last Chance U) to buoy his recruiting efforts. But, if hired by Sterk, it would be absolutely imperative that Kiffin come in and improve Missouri’s recruiting dramatically so he can leverage talent in the manner that his best offenses did in the past.
At USC, Tennessee, and Alabama, Kiffin was never a part of a team that ranked worse than 24th in the final SP+ rankings. At FAU he’s finished 50th, 81st, and his 2019 squad has been riding an incredibly improved defense back to 50th. Unlike Harsin in yesterday’s preview, it’s harder to believe any of the success at the brand name schools is due to development of players or his acumen regarding football tactics. Seeing the up and down nature of his FAU build gives me some hope that he could do the same at Missouri but, again, the success with the Owls is based on transfers clicking immediately and out-recruiting his peers, something I’m unsure of him being able to do in Columbia.
But hey, maybe I’m being too hard on the guy. I mean...it’s Lane Kiffin! The dude is in high demand, especially now that he’s matured. He can bring out the best in offenses and beat the big boys...right?
Friends...I have bad news. I’m not impressed with his record. Yes, 60-34 (as of this week) is pretty good, as is a 20-8 record against his division opponents. But how did Barry hurt us? That’s right, with his record against ranked teams and teams with winning records. And Coach Kiffin is 3-13 against ranked teams and 24-26 against teams with winning records. Yes...three wins in 16 tries against ranked teams and under .500 against teams with winning records. And that’s not all at FAU, mind you. I mean, even with all the recruiting resources in the world at Tennessee and USC, the dude went 28-23 against P5 opponents. At least he owns the hell out of the G5 (23-8) and the SP+ 76 and over teams (27-3) because his record against the SP+ Top 25 is 6-17. Again, teams don’t play as well against elite teams, but — and I want to make this clear — HIS USC TEAMS WERE ELITE TEAMS. If Kiffin can’t win with a talent advantage, why would he win with a talent disadvantage?
Obviously no situation is exactly the same, and maybe Missouri, yes Missouri, is the place where Kiffin improves the Tiger’s recruiting profile while developing players into a terrifying offensive nightmare for the SEC. But I would hope for a better record for a guy who has had stops at such elite programs.
On our podcast with Bill ConneIly, “The Godfather” thought that Kiffin would be a good hire; not elite, not slam dunk, not a sure thing, but a better hire than people would think that Missouri could benefit from. I don’t think he’s wrong, per se, but I do think Kiffin is going to be expensive and I don’t think he would be worth it. There, I said it. I believe we could get similar (better?) results with some other coach who wouldn’t be as expensive and wouldn’t have the potential headaches that Kiffin has been known for. If Kiffin does come here, I’d need to see some excellent coordinator hires coupled with assistants in possession of excellent recruiting chops (which, for the record, he absolutely did at Tennessee). Let’s hope for the best!