HOOVER, Ala. — The coronavirus pandemic delayed Lane Kiffin's first appearance at Southeastern Conference Media Days as Ole Miss' head coach, but maybe giving the dry-wit offensive guru a year to build up some material was worth it.
This way, Kiffin could address his 12-year-old son, Knox, near the main stage and razz league commissioner Greg Sankey for fining Kiffin $25,000 last season for retweeting video of a controversial play in Ole Miss' 35-28 loss to Auburn.
"(Sankey) actually reminded me," Kiffin said Tuesday. "When he saw Knox, went up and said hi to Knox, you know, that Knox needs to earn his scholarship because of the commissioner's fine last year. ... Thanks to the fine there."
This way, enough time passed for the NCAA to surrender to the widespread state legislations that legalized college athletes to make money off their name, image and likeness. A reporter told Kiffin that Nick Saban said Alabama five-star quarterback Bryce Young is approaching NIL deals totaling almost seven figures. Kiffin was baffled to near silence.
"That number just blew me away," Kiffin said. He looked toward Ole Miss sports information director Kyle Campbell. "You didn't prepare me for that. That's amazing. He made a million dollars and hasn't started a game yet? Wow, I don't even know what to respond to that, but great for him."
This way, reporters could still bring up memories from Kiffin's one-year stint at Tennessee in 2009. How a 34-year-old coach said on the day he was introduced as the Vols' coach that Tennessee would be "singing Rocky Top all night long after we beat Florida next year." How the Vols lost a tight 23-13 battle with the then No. 1 Gators, then went 7-6 under Kiffin before he controversially left for Southern Cal.
One reporter recalled how Kiffin brought his All-SEC ballot to that year's media days because there had been talk that someone didn't vote Florida quarterback Tim Tebow first-team All-SEC.
"As usual, I was accused of that," Kiffin said. "So I brought my ballot to show everyone, to show (former Florida coach) Urban (Meyer)."
This way, when someone asked about the status of star running back Jerrion Ealy after offseason shoulder surgery, Kiffin could claim he was "still blown away on this Bryce Young" news — he'd eventually say "Ealy's fine" — and diverge into a humorous tangent about Alabama.
"The guy's made a million dollars already?" Kiffin said. "That's good, man. He doesn't need to play next year against us then."
Of course, there were the cliché questions about what it would mean to become the first former Saban assistant to beat his old mentor (Saban is now 23-0).
Of course, there were discussions about Kiffin's entertaining presence on Twitter (Kiffin said he only created an account so he could legally direct message recruits).
But beneath the lightheartedness of Kiffin's media day debut, there were inquiries surrounding Ole Miss and the team's very real threat of being a disrupter in the SEC West this season.
Kiffin said if he'd brought another All-SEC ballot to the podium this year, Rebels quarterback Matt Corral would have his first-team vote. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound junior was the nucleus of Kiffin's potent offense. Corral was the SEC's fourth player to finish a season as the NCAA's leader in total offense per game (384.9), and he completed 70.9% of his passes while ranking seventh nationally in passing yards (3,337) and touchdown passes (29).
Corral was erratic at times as a sophomore. Eleven of his 14 interceptions came against Arkansas (six picks) and LSU (five). But even while throwing a pick-six against LSU in the season finale, Corral scored four total touchdowns and added 158 yards rushing.
Combine Corral's refined dual-threat abilities with a healthy Ealy, who rushed for 732 yards and five touchdowns in the 10-game 2020 season, and Kiffin's offense should be as potent as a year ago.
"I think (Kiffin's) offenses are hard to stop," said LSU coach Ed Orgeron, who planned on hiring Kiffin as offensive coordinator in 2017 had Kiffin not received a head coaching opportunity with Florida Atlantic. "I studied his offenses against other teams. He's riddled other teams. He's probably the best game-day caller I've been around."
Still, Ole Miss has an obvious issue: a defense that was statistically dreadful last season. Ole Miss ranked 117th out of 127 FBS teams in scoring defense (38.3 points allowed per game) and 126th in total defense (519 yards allowed per game). Three games reached triple digit score totals between both teams and Ole Miss only won one of them (a 59-42 victory over South Carolina).
"Film doesn't lie," Ole Miss safety Jaylon Jones said. "We weren't the best at executing. We weren't the best at tackling or stopping offenses, so we make that a main focus as a team. The coaches stress it enough."
Now that potent offenses have surged in the SEC — particularly with Alabama and LSU, which both have produced Heisman Trophy winners and averaged over 48 points in the past two seasons — having one of those potent offenses is no longer as great an advantage.
When a team has such a disparity between offense and defense, Kiffin said coaches are forced to be really aggressive in their game plans. Not just going for it on fourth down. Attempting more fakes, trick plays, taking more shots down the field. Using more blitzes and aggressive defensive packages to try to create turnovers against offenses that are planning to be more aggressive against a struggling defense.
When such plans work, Ole Miss could end up with a game like its Outback Bowl upset over No. 7 Indiana. The Rebels forced an interception and fumble while its offense continued to click. When such plans don't, Ole Miss ends up combining 100 points with teams like Alabama that have more firepower.
"It's not something you want to have," Kiffin said. "You obviously want to play really well on offense and play well on defense so you don't have to think that way. That's what we're looking to do."