There seems to be little in common between Dave Aranda and Lane Kiffin, other than that they both make a comfortable and sometimes trying living coaching football.
Aranda is quiet and unassuming, possessing as academic a quality as a coach can have on the field. He puts his players through drills with a professorial bent, imploring them over and over to get the small details right.
“Point the toe,” he told linebackers over and over in a recent practice drill. “Point the toe. Point the toe.”
“He told me once he would go to (coaching) clinics and buy coaching books and didn’t have money to eat the rest of the month,” LSU interim coach Ed Orgeron said.
That isn’t a problem for either coach these days. Aranda in January signed a three-year deal with LSU worth a total of $3.75 million. Kiffin’s salary at Alabama is $1.4 million per season. Both are arguably the best in the college game at what they do.
Kiffin is brash and opinionated. According to a story in USA Today, when he was a college student, he talked his older sister Heidi out of marrying and moving to France because she would be too far away from the family. His résumé, for better or worse, has included some of the most high-profile head coaching jobs in America: the Oakland Raiders, Tennessee and Southern California. For all of those jobs, it's still widely debated whether he actually earned his shot at them.
At 7 p.m. Saturday, they will match wits again, a chess match of hurtling bodies and swift skill as No. 15 LSU and No. 1 Alabama square off in Tiger Stadium.
Neither Aranda nor Kiffin talks to reporters during game week, adding an air of mystery to the matchup — mad scientists holed up in a laboratory somewhere, cooking up schemes and wrinkles that the other hasn’t seen yet.
“He knows every position on the field,” Orgeron said of Aranda. “His personal work habits are unbelievable. He studies the game. He has this little notebook and writes everything down. He’s like a professor.”
Orgeron coached under Kiffin at Tennessee in 2009 and at Southern California from 2010-13, succeeding Kiffin when he was fired at USC early in the 2013 season. (Orgeron went 6-2.) The two have remained good friends, though Orgeron stressed they hadn’t spoken this week.
“He’s a great game-day play caller because he sees things fast and he knows how defenses operate,” Orgeron said of Kiffin. “He was born with a football in his hand.”
Kiffin is the son of legendary NFL defensive coach Monte Kiffin, credited with helping invent the “Tampa 2” defensive alignment. Monte Kiffin, who was his son’s defensive coordinator at Tennessee, is in his 50th year of coaching at age 76 as a defensive assistant with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
It seemed a fire and water combination when Alabama coach Nick Saban hired Kiffin in 2014. But the two have coexisted, even through a few sideline “(butt) chewings” by Saban on his play caller.
“Lane does a great job for what we want him to do,” Saban told, of all people, golf broadcaster David Feherty in a Golf Channel interview last year. “He’s a great play caller. He’s a really good teacher. He’s got great relationships with the players. I think he’s a great offensive coordinator.”
Both coaches have brought change to their schools in terms of defensive and offensive philosophy — and have continued to thrive.
Aranda directed a shift away from the 4-3 defense that LSU used throughout the 2000s to a 3-4 base alignment that is multiple in its looks for opposing offenses. Kiffin weened Saban off his devotion to the power running game and now has Alabama going full spread offense.
Both of their units have been highly successful. Aranda’s LSU defense is fifth nationally in points allowed (15.0), 13th in yards allowed (313.9) and eighth against the run (104.1). Alabama is eighth in scoring (43.9), seventh in total offense (498.0) and 11th in rushing (233.3).
These two crossed paths just a little over a season ago, with Kiffin and the Crimson Tide getting the better of it. Alabama beat Wisconsin 35-17 in the teams’ season opener in Arlington, Texas.
Eventual Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry rushed for 147 yards and three touchdowns on just 13 carries. The Badgers surrendered nine rushing plays of 10 or more yards, the most they had allowed since 2012 against Nebraska — the kind of stat LSU must avoid if it wants to win Saturday.
Wisconsin went on to have a stellar season defensively. Alabama won the College Football Playoff national championship, surviving Clemson 45-40, but all the points and yards the Crimson Tide surrendered that night allowed Aranda’s Badgers to claim the season-ending No. 1 ranking in scoring defense, allowing 13.7 points per game. Wisconsin also finished in the top four nationally in rushing and pass efficiency defense.
Tale of the tape
LSU's defense vs. Alabama's offense:
LSU's defense (FBS rank) ... Statistic ... Alabama's offense (FBS rank)
313.9 (13) ... Avg. yards allowed/gained ... 498.0 (17)
15.0 (5) ... Avg. points allowed/scored ... 43.9 (8)
209.7 (42) ... Avg. passing yds. allowed/gained ... 233.3 (66)
104.1 (8) ... Avg. rushing yds. allowed/gained ... 264.8 (11)
111.9 (19) ... Pass efficiency defense/offense ... 146.8 (30)
-0.14 (86) ... Turnover margin ... +0.50 (30)